Hey, Ladies! Comics!

One Perspective On Women, Comic Books, and the Art of Misogynistic Exclusion.

 

Any trip to a major comic book convention reveals that the mainstream comic book industry is predominantly male.  The percentage of books featuring female characters, be they in solo adventures or as part of a team, is pretty low.  The percentage of female creators, particularly at the “Big Two” is even lower.  (One side note, when discussing Marvel and DC Comics, aka the aforementioned “Big Two,” it may be time to change that to the “Big Five” and include Dark Horse, Image, and either IDW or Dynamite. While that’s a discussion for later, it is worth noting, as the percentage of female creators does increase when those three or four publishers are added to the mix, albeit only slightly.)

Attend an event like the Small Press Expo (SPX), however, and you get a very different perspective on the audience for sequential art storytelling.  Between vendors, creators, and fans, women are one-third to one-half the attendees, easily.

So, what, exactly, is to blame for the discrepancy?

I run a comic book shop near D.C., and quite a few of my customers are women.  Women buying and reading comics for themselves, not just moms picking up books for their kids or wives picking up comics for their husbands.

The women who patronize my shop aren’t just looking for Manga, as many stereotypes suggest.  They’re reading the latest adventures of the Justice League, the X-Men, the Avengers, et cetera, just like men.  I have noted one key difference between the two, which is that women are more open to trying out new ideas in comics than men.  Most of the men in my shop have invested years in their favorite characters, and male comic readers get their knickers in a massive twist whenever anything remotely hinting at change occurs.

For example, Spider-Man writer Dan Slott received death threats when he had villain Doctor Octopus take over Peter Parker’s body and become Spider-Man.  Subscribers cancelled not just their Spider-Man subscription, but all of their Marvel titles, in protest.  The female readers tended to have a reaction far more along the lines of “hunh.  Could be interesting.”

(It should be noted that these same kind of male fans were the nitwits who, upon hearing of plans for a new live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie, claimed director Michael Bay had “raped” their childhood.)

Another interesting note about the difference between male and female comic fans is that men tend to care more about the art, and women more about the story.  Male fans will stick with a book no matter how poorly it’s being written, so long as their favorite characters look right, or the book is pretty.  Female readers care more about their favorite characters being portrayed true to the character’s nature than whether or not he or she is drawn a certain way.

Now, I readily admit that I am broadly generalizing, but at the heart of fandom, my comments ring true.  I also admit that female fandom for other things, such as the Twilight or Shades of Gray books are as vehement in their protective nature towards those characters.  However I don’t recall those writers getting death threats because of a casting decision, or an unexpected plot twist.

Quite a bit of this disparity in comics is the fault of the publishers.  While there were female creators at Marvel and DC since those companies began (Marie Severin and Ramona Fradon come to mind first), for the most part hiring has been a perpetuation of the boy’s club mentality.  Societal constraints also play a role, by creating gender-divisions through marketing (of toys, games, et cetera).  By the late 60s and early 70s, mainstream comics had become a male-superhero dominated industry.  Seldom were risks taken where comics explored issues of the day regarding feminism, except in the pages of books where it was expected, like Wonder Woman.

No major effort was made to recruit new female readership, thanks in most part to the marketing strategies that are now so prevalent: don’t spend money selling your wares to the smallest portions of your customers.  Since comics were mostly read by boys and young men, that’s where the marketing and creative sides focused their energies.  From a purely business-success standpoint, I get it…it does kind of makes sense.

But it’s also the dumbest idea possible.

Superhero comics have dominated the industry for decades, and it’s no secret that the storylines (much like soap operas) have degenerated into rehashing ideas and plots from ages ago.  Or, worse, other forms of media.  Frankly, I’m surprised readers haven’t tired completely of the genre.  (For example, I’ve been reading comics for nearly 40 years, and of the two or three dozen books I regularly read now, only 3 are considered traditional superhero comics.)

Attend SPX, however, and your options blossom into genres one might not have even considered for comics.  Stories that feature more than one female character.  Stories that have nothing to do with traditional superhero themes.  Stories that have no male characters or creators.  Stories with creators and origins and characters as diverse as our world…or beyond.

Unfortunately, too many comic fans are too wrapped up in their comfort zone of arguing (again) if Superman could beat the Hulk.  Even worse, there are still male fans who have long discussions (with the kind of fervency and passion you would think only reserved for political debate) about which female character is the hottest.

And, therein lies the problem.  The industry is too skewed towards satisfying these customers.

Captain Marvel #17

Captain Marvel & the Carol Corps

Of the female customers that come into my shop, a majority of them are reading Captain Marvel, a Marvel comic featuring a female lead, written by one of the best writers in comics, Kelly Sue DeConnick.  DeConnick has a knack for character development and mood that is serving her very well in the male-dominated superhero genre, creating stories that appease the male masses but that also make female readers feel included.  Captain Marvel, AKA Carol Danvers, has spawned a huge following amongst female fans of superhero comics, and as long as Kelly Sue continues to write her, could seriously change the gender status quo both for readers and creators.

(For comparison, DC Comics has a book, Birds of Prey, that features an entirely female cast of heroes, but because of how DC creators are governed, the look and feel of the book isn’t nearly as inviting to female readers.  In fact, in my shop, Prey sells at roughly one-third the level of Captain Marvel, and only one regular reader of Prey is female, compared to the two-thirds of Captain Marvel readers.)

While the tide is slowly turning towards making comics more accessible to female readers and creators, we are still bombarded with enough reports and stories of misogyny that I am surprised women don’t run screaming from the room when you even mention “comic books.”

Writer Scott Lobdell has publicly apologized for an incident where he openly sexually harassed a female creator in front of her husband.  However, Lobdell’s apology all but included the phrase “she was asking for it.”  Artist Tony Harris wrote posts on his social media accounts complaining about women cosplayers at conventions either not being attractive enough, or not genuine enough fans (the unfortunately ubiquitous “Fake Geek Girl” label), to warrant their inclusion at such events.

While those are two isolated incidents, the sentiment behind them is not at all unique, and despite the growing percentage of female readers and creators, such treatment continues.  (I will acknowledge that this problem exists also for non-white readers of any gender, as well as readers of any non-heterosexual orientation.  Bigotry is bigotry, but as I am a white male with a young daughter, sexism is the one that I pay the most attention to.)

This short-sighted marketing of comics has resulted in artistic portrayals of women bordering on the pornographic.  When DC relaunched two years ago with its “New 52” brand, there were discussions at my shop about whether or not we should let anyone under 15 buy DC Comics, because of over the top sex and violence in nearly every issue.  A DC executive told one creator that they “made comics for 45-year-olds,” and not kids.  An entire company, Zenoscope, publishes comics where most of their budget goes into paying cover artists to draw buxom, scantily clad women with a rubber-band for a spine.

This kind of treatment towards half of the world’s population simply cannot stand.  It shouldn’t happen in any walk of life, but if the comic book industry wants to survive, it has to change.

While the film version of The Avengers netted over 1.5 Billion dollars globally, total readership of the comics remained, at best, stagnant.  The heyday of comics during the speculation boom of the 90s is long over, as are the use of sales gimmicks to reach 7-figure distribution levels.  Today, a comic book is considered a success if it can sustain 30,000 units.

Despite the cry of many retailers, digital comics aren’t to blame for the industry’s woes, it’s a panicky inability to accept or welcome change and new minds and fresh ideas into the fold.  Because of that stagnation, self-publishing, web comics, and digital-first books are growing at a rate that superhero comics will soon be unable to keep up with.

With that rapid growth in creator-owned product and distribution channels comes a similarly rapid growth in female creators and readers that is, as far as I am concerned, very encouraging and exciting.  Comics are growing, and the recognition of sequential art as a true art form is finally taking hold outside the confines of comic shops.  Bringing up the rear in that advancement are the superhero comics of Marvel and DC.  Part of that problem is their inability to welcome or accept change and new ideas, and part stems from a lack of understanding that there just might be someone out there who isn’t one of the same 50,000 white dudes they are marketing to who just might find one of their stories interesting.

However, comics are the one field I know of where the axiom “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is just not true.  Covers sell comics, like it or not.  And, more often than not, a comic features a woman like this:

Zenoscope-Oz
I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure spines can’t do that.

When someone calls out a publisher or creator for this kind of exploitation, the unfortunate and laughable knee-jerk reaction is always “well, men get exploited too!”

Um…no.

The uber-fit physique of, say, Superman standing there fully clothed is in no way similar to the image above.  Nor is this:

Superman

Nice mortally-attainable abs there, Kal.

The same as this:

Emma Frost, dressed for sexess

Emma Frost: Most Likely To Use Double Stick Tape.

Or this:

Catwoman

How's that spine-ectomy working for you, Selina?

I fully admit and acknowledge that comic books fulfil some sort of fantasy life for their readers.  I wouldn’t mind at all if I looked more like Chris Hemsworth (and I’m sure my wife wouldn’t, either), so, yes, the depiction of bodies does hold some element of idealized hope and/or fantasy.

That hopeful self-idealism is a far cry from the expectation that a woman who wants to fight crime would dress and pose like this:

Starfire

This is the DEMURE picture of Starfire!

This is not only a poor understanding of anatomy, but a potential message to female readers that if you don’t come close to looking/acting like this, you don’t belong in our clubhouse.

Thankfully, creator owned books almost never suffer from this stupidity, and women are portrayed with a far greater nod to reality than in traditional superhero books.  And while they are superhero books and an escape from reality in all aspects, that doesn’t excuse the depiction of women as sex toys. Independent comics have figured this out, and hopefully mainstream comics will too.

It will be a herculean effort, though.  It starts as much with the publishers as it does the comic shops.  I do what I can to make our shop inviting and welcoming for everyone who enters, regardless of age, gender, or orientation.  If you walk in that door, you are looking for a good story to escape into for a little while; a new world to explore.  It’s my job to help you find that world and help more people discover the potential of sequential art.  I do that better if I have more options that could appeal to more people, rather than trying to force everyone to read yet another Batman story where he chases after the Joker.

I don’t buy in to the chicken-little cries that the medium is dying.  The mainstream comic industry, however, is dying.  The only way that it can survive is to be as welcoming and open to new readers, creators and ideas as possible.

And, boy-nerds, for crying out loud, stop trying to justify and defend your sexual fantasies with calls that you are exploited too.  When Marvel and DC start publishing comics like this:

Real Women's Fantasy Covers

Coming to a news stand near you...never, I expect.

…THEN you can also claim to be exploited.

So, if you want to help change things, go check out a comic shop.  If you really want to know what Wolverine or Batman are up to, by all means read those comics.  But when you are there, ask about other genres.  Ask about Faith Erin Hicks’ video game prequel story The Last Of Us: American Dreams, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios‘ wild western Pretty Deadly, Jim McCann’s excellent supernatural mystery series Mind The Gap, or Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman’s fantastic stories set in the Star Wars and Planet of The Apes universes.

Or, find an independent comics convention like SPX and check out some of the amazing self-published creators like Amy Chu, Tara Abbamondi, Erica Schultz, Katie Cook, or Shing Yin Khor.

If you are already into comics and want to help increase the industry’s number of great female creators, read Janelle Asselin’s Hire This Woman column at Comics Alliance, and keep an eye out for her regular articles and commentary on women in comics.  She is currently working on a book about the marketing of comics to women, so suffice it to say, she’s an expert.  And yes, she’s a Batman fan.  You could also learn more about some of the many brilliant female creators from the beginnings of the industry in Trina Robbins’ book Pretty In Ink.

There are whole worlds of stories to discover out there.  Let them be told, and check them out yourself.  However, for this beloved art form to thrive, remember this one rule: just because some readers and creators don’t have one, don’t be one.

 

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only 1 comment untill now

  1. JanArrah @ 2014-02-06 17:33

    To be fair, i don’t think you can SOLELY blame the Big 2 for their lack of titles for non-middle aged audiences. The problem is, they’ve TRIED. They’ve had countless marketing strategies towards kids. Marvel has had a HUGE attempt to try to garner female readers (remember they did Arana, Love, Models Inc, the Anita Blake comics, and even more recently a Pride and Prejudice comic), but.. THEY DON’T SELL. The market isn’t buying them, so they get cancelled and put away, until they try again. So you can’t solely blame the Big 2 for not having these titles, you also need to blame the fanbase for not supporting titles (especially after they DEMAND them, the company launches them, then nobody buys the comic).

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