Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival explores why we like bad women

Notice all of those women at Halloween parties this year wearing a costume that looked like it might be Casual Friday attire for the hottest court jester ever? Assume that it must have been connected to those creepy clowns that have been cropping up all over the place lately?

Right idea, wrong pop culture trend. That costume — the one that Google said was this year’s hottest Halloween costume both in Las Vegas and nationally — is Harley Quinn’s. She’s the comic book villainess featured in “Suicide Squad,” last summer’s buzziest movie, and the latest incarnation of that literary staple known as the femme fatale.

The evolution of the femme fatale will be the focus of a panel discussion at Saturday’s Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival at Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road.

This year marks the ninth edition of the festival, which started as part of the Vegas Valley Book Festival before setting off on its own. The festival is sponsored by the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District and its Foundation and Pop! Goes the Icon.

The festival’s offerings will include panel discussions about comic books and the comic book industry, meet-and-greets with comic creators, drawing tutorials, a scavenger hunt and a retail marketplace. Also scheduled is a screening of the documentary “Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously,” a performance by the Velveteen Band, a “steampunk puppet and rabbit rock show,” and, at 8 p.m., an after party, “Geekpalooza,” at Dive Bar, 4110 S. Maryland Parkway.

All events are free. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

Festival organizer Suzanne Scott says that while the festival drew mostly established comic book fans during its early years, it has grown into a way to help introduce newcomers to the world of comic conventions.

“The workshops and panels are almost more toward adults and teens,” she adds, although drawing sessions, face-painting and crafts booths have proven popular among children and parents.

“It’s a great family outing, and we have noticed more and more families,” Scott says.

The festival has drawn about 3,000 people annually over the past several years, Scott says, with last year’s festival hosting “about 3,600, give or take.”

Benjamin Saunders, an English professor at the University of Oregon who directs the university’s minor in comics and cartoon studies, is scheduled to moderate a panel discussion called “Beyond the Femme Fatale: Reimagining the Female Villain.”

Saunders notes that female villains have been a part of popular fiction for decades. In fact, he says, Catwoman — perhaps comic books’ most iconic female villain — “appeared in Batman No. 1 (in 1940) in the same issue with the Joker.”

“Without a good villain, you don’t have much of a hero,” Saunders says, and the femme fatale long has offered comic book creators and readers a twist on a superhero antagonist theme.

“I think the superficial trappings, the kind of iconography, to the femme fatale probably changed from decade to decade in some ways,” Saunders says. “But the basic conception — the seductive but dangerous female for whom sex is kind of like the poisoned chalice — that’s a very ancient archetype, indeed.

“It goes back to Greek myth. It goes back to ancient Judeo-Christian, Samson and Delilah stuff. The original biblical femme fatale is probably Delilah.”

“On one hand, it’s a very ancient archetype and that makes it significant all by itself,” Saunders says. And because the femme fatale can be restyled to reflect each era’s social changes, it has “very deep roots in the culture.”

During the panel discussion, “everybody’s going to talk, I’m sure, about their favorite femmes fatale,” Saunders says, examining why “these characters are terrific fun to write, fun to draw and great to cosplay.”

However, the risk in creating a comic book femme fatale comes when a female villain is “hypersexualized” in a way in which physical appearance substitutes for the sort of emotional texture and diversity found in, say, comparing the Joker’s maniacal manner to Lex Luthor’s more methodical mode of villiany.

“We have always had fangirls going back to the 40s, but fangirls have a new kind of visibility and voice, and I think they are looking for a range of female characters, and they’re looking for opportunities to identify with characters who are not represented as sexualized,” Saunders says.

That’s particularly important because women now make up such a large portion of the comic-reading universe. That can be seen in attendance at comic conventions over the past decade or so, Saunders says, where crowds now are “50 percent female and more (are) under 30. That’s happening at conventions all over.”

“I think the leap toward inclusivity in the superhero genre has made in the last five years or so is the single most exciting thing about it,” he says. There are “more women creators than at any previous time in the history of the medium. And this isn’t just true about women, of course. It’s true about race as well as gender.”

So why was Harley Quinn so hot this Halloween? Maybe, Saunders says, it’s because Halloween “has always been a little about carnival. Halloween always has been a sexy holiday. People in their 20s enjoy Halloween costumes because it’s an opportunity to role play, and role playing is often sexualized. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if a sexualized villain is a hot costume this year.”

Read more from John Przybys at Contact him at and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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