Nielson's survey of DC New 52 buyers was recently published and the results are either surprising or predictable depending on your stance. Only 5% of readers were new to comics, 2% were under 18 years old, and 93% were male – that's right, only 7% of those surveyed were female readers.
The survey was conducted both in stores and online (as well as with digital buying customers) and yielded just over 6000 respondents. The New 52 has largely been a success with lapsed readers, and DC's preferred target audience of males between 18-50, but has seemingly failed to bring in any new readers; something that is increasingly important in a declining market with falling sales.
A day later, the cover to World's Finest #1 was released, showcasing new looks for Power Girl and Huntress that have removed the infamous skin revealing windows in their costumes. The lack of a "boob window" in Power Girl's outfit has led to outrage from fans, decrying the "prudes" that are "ruining" comics. It's perhaps obvious that this reaction is somewhat inevitable given the statistics above, but may suggest that the failure of DC to expand its readership has less to do with content and ambition, and more to do with a failure of marketing.
Put simply, very few people who are not already aware of comics culture have any idea that changes to their superheroes have been made, or that DC is actively trying to win over women fans. Superhero comics are seen as male fantasy fodder, with boobs and butts bursting out the covers, and male creator names splattered across the titles. Existing fans can cry all they like about changes to their heroes, but they are in a dwindling fanbase where those who leave the readership are not being replaced by new fans. But if DC don't make changes known to those outside that circle, everyone loses.
Worlds Finest is written by Paul Levitz, with art by George Perez, Scott Koblish, and Kevin Maguire. It is a new ongoing series following the adventures of Power Girl and Huntress of Earth 2. DC's promo for the series reads: "Discover why these two heroes are stranded on our Earth – and what it means for the heroes of the DC Universe".
Cover to Worlds Finest #1
Regardless of her character, powers, personality or background, Power Girl was always most famous for her breasts. The fact that she was one of the most independent and empowered women the DC Universe had seen, makes this focus on her body seem all the more disrespectful. Kara demanded to be treated as an equal by the male heroes around her and was angry at the fact that that usually wasn't the case. Her look was not the willowy build of other women heroes, but stocky and muscular, with short hair and a stylish costume. She didn't care what others thought of her appearance, and would snap at anyone who belittled her with sexist language.
Kara also had large breasts, even in her first appearances, though later these would inflate to fan pleasing proportions. To be perfectly clear, there is nothing wrong with a character having large breasts, nor having a revealing outfit. I've spoken out about Power Girl in particular and other women in comics frequently in the past. But the fact remains that the fan reaction to her was very telling – Power Girl was a powerful strong women, and many readers punished her by reducing her to a pair of boobs. No matter that she wanted equality or promoted feminism as long as her best assets were on display and rigorously defended against "prudes". But it's not prudish to point out that in a world where women are judged on looks first and foremost that a choice of clothing can diminish a strong character.
And yet we never see Batman in that kind of costume...
It's not right, and it's not fair. Women should be able to wear what they like without being judged for it. But superhero comics are a male fantasy world, and diversity in clothing and body shape is hard to find. Nearly every superwoman is clothed in skimpy, revealing outfits to highlight their similar, toned bodies. Nearly every women must have her breasts visible and her butt pert.
Power Girl's costume, and her breasts, should not change her overall message – that she demanded respect, to be taken seriously, and never apologised for being a strong woman. Later she would have excuses for her boob window, even stating that it was a hole she could never close. Earlier in her career, Power Girl had no such confusion over her costume and the window was simply there because she wanted it to be. When given a symbol to put on her costume, modified from Superman's own, she angrily replies, "Why you little chauvinistic piglet! I thought you understood... I'm my own woman!". That was in the 70s and sadly things haven't changed much. Power Girl is still judged by her cleavage, and comic fans apparently decide whether or not to read her stories based on whether they can see her breasts or not.
Kara as she appears in the New 52
Kara's costume has changed throughout the years but almost always reverts back to the boob window eventually. There is a common myth that Wally Wood initially kept inflating Power Girl's breasts every time he drew her but this is a (very popular!) urban legend. Kara should not be defined by her breasts, and of course just because her superhero costume doesn't highlight them, doesn't mean other outfits won't.
The new costume is sleek with no boob window, and has gone for a white and gold colour scheme rather than a white and blue (I like the blue!). One thing's for sure, the wind resistance on this costume is a hell of a lot better!
Liking Power Girl's costume doesn't depend on whether you are feminist or not – you don't get your badge taken away if you like it! A woman has the right to wear what she likes and not be judged for it, and on her own, Power Girl's costume choice is fine. But Power Girl is a fictional character, and her choices are not her own. Her choices are, for the most part, chosen by men and as we can see from those survey results, mostly done so for a male market. Power Girl has many women fans, and many of those fans love her original look. But on the shelves, seen by other people, that same look contributes to the overall impression of superhero comics being male masturbation material.
A previous look, complete with boob window
It's a difficult issue to be sure, but the reaction has been very revealing: men angry that "prudes" have taken away Power Girl's breasts. Of course, they're still there, just under her newest costume design. Huntress has also been covered up, but as her previous windows didn't show the holy grail of cleavage, there has been hardly any fuss.
As long as people can get annoyed that a woman has covered herself up we can see that sexism and misogynistic entitlement are alive and well. Sadly for Power Girl, she exists in a culture where women are routinely sexually objectified and hyper-sexualised. One of my arguments is that with greater diversity in our women characters in superhero comics, such outfits would be far more palatable. If we had women characters in all shapes and sizes, all styles of costume, all manner of presentation, it would be grand to have some women in what is currently the stereotypical superwoman outfit.
Peej as she could be if she wasn't stuck in a male dominated comics world...
Ideally this would be achieved by bringing in more new women, who were fabulous characters that just happened to be women, and having them in a range of costumes. Or by bringing back some of those we miss, like The Question or Stephanie Brown. But giving one of our most well known heroes such a makeover is a strong statement to make. Multiverse and different Earths aside, this is a brave new look for Power Girl, and a sign that DC are willing to take risks.
But this message still isn't reaching outside the existing comics fanbase, and that is an issue that badly needs addressed in order for these risks to pay off.