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26Jul/1213

Women in Comics: It Ain’t Over

In the last couple of weeks there has been a slew of articles about the subject of "women in comics" that range from calling out "hot" women that supposedly pretend to be into "geek culture", to telling us that the phrase "women in comics" is passée because the battle has been won, and to other articles taking the depressing line that superhero comics will never change.

The first takes a line on policing just how geeky an attractive women has to be to count as a geek, while ignoring the inherent sexism of industries that pay women to dress in provocative clothes and strut their stuff. The second, makes the mistake of thinking that the experiences of some of the women who have had success in comics are universal, and the third is a tad confusing as I know the author is not against giving up on working towards better representation and portrayals of women at DC and Marvel, yet takes the angle that we should focus on indie comics instead where women are more welcome.

"For a bulky segment of a century, I have been an avid follower of comic strips - all comic strips; this is a statement made with approximately the same amount of pride with which one would say, 'I've been shooting cocaine into my arm for the past twenty-five years.' I cannot remember how the habit started, and I am presently unable to explain why it persists. I only know that I'm hooked, by now, that's all." - Dorothy Parker, 1943

Captain Marvel and Miss Fury

I've long argued that "women in comics" is no new movement, and that women have been both fans and creators of comics - including male-targeted action strips - since the very beginning. While in an ideal world it would be nice to talk about comic fans and comic creators and know that women were immediately included in that, the fact remains that without a picture or name to my words, the default setting for me as both a comics reader and as a comics journalist is male. When Dalia Messick and June Mills both intruded into the world of action comics back in 1940 and '41, both women changed their name to a less obviously female pseudonym. While many women had had great success in the daily and weekly newspaper strips in the decades before, women creating action stories were seen as trespassing on male territory. So it was that Dale Messick brought us Brenda Starr, and Tarpé Mills brought us Miss Fury.

This double standard still exists today, where women in independent and autobiographical comics are seen as acceptable and normal (much like women authors in prose and poetry), while women creators in action and superhero comics are seen as the odd ones out. And indeed the statistics bear out that they are the minority, even as women readers of these comics continues to increase. Any argument that we should be happy with what we've got, and turn our back on the superhero strips misses the point of these action comics - they are not just for men, and it is not only men that want to create and consume them. That's what the publishers might think, but it sure as hell shouldn't be what they actually think.

Brenda Starr, Reporter

It also does a disservice to the women working for the likes of DC and Marvel right now, fighting to maintain their space and, no doubt, tiring of being held up as representative of all women interested in superheroes. They are only representative because they are so few! We do not hold up Grant Morrison or Scott Snyder as representative of all male creators or fans after all. As Gail Simone posted on her tumblr account on Monday:

"YOU KNOW WHAT IS EXHAUSTING?

"…being at a convention, a busy convention, and having dozens, sometimes hundreds of women in my signing line, not there because they are being dragged there but because they love comics—taking pictures with them, admiring their amazing cosplay, listening to their ideas and hopes and favorite stories, listening to their passion about the characters and the medium in general, talking with endless female aspiring writers and so many ridiculously talented female colleagues…

"…and then having to go to an interview or a panel and being asked why don’t women read comics."

Part of this is down to publishers downplaying the number of women readers that they have. Part of it is down to a deeply ingrained, and gender essentialist belief that women only read certain kinds of comics, certain kinds of stories. And partly it is down to a mainstream media that is hopelessly out of tune with comics culture as a whole. Newspapers report on some new "rise of the female geek" every other month it seems, each time expressing hysterical delight at the fact that women, real live ones, have actually been seeing reading comics, or attending a convention, or going to see a comic book film. Such feats that we have never seen the likes of before since last month.

Wonder Woman - Adam HughesMy god, there are women in this!!

Women buy the majority of cinema tickets, and buy the majority of books. Women are a powerful sector of the media consumption pie, and when a large media craze hits, it's generally women who are making up the majority of sales. Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey - each of which single handedly kept the publishing market afloat every time it's poised to sink. What publisher wouldn't want to appeal to this mass market of hungry readers? And yet even the independent and literary comics struggle to find such exposure. Why? Because the general public's idea of comics is that they are the superheroes, the scantily clad tits and ass covers, the boys domain, the shops that women often feel unwelcome in, and the comics that women supposedly do read are often hidden behind them. When any mainstream press article focusing on these latter titles must first establish, again and again, that women do read comics, that comics are for grown ups, and that spandex isn't a necessity, it's easy to see why they just skip past them instead to the latest literary wonder prose.

The schitck I often see is the "women read romance novels, which by the way are just as sexist" line. Putting my bookseller hat on, I can tell you that women read all genres of books, from fantasy to crime. In fact, a recent study by the Crime Writers’ Association showed that women purchasers make up 60% of the ebook crime market. In all probability less men are reading romance than women, but then in all probability less women are reading military fiction than men, but the numbers are fuzzy and it's certainly clear that growing numbers of men enjoy "chicklit" while everyone continues to try and rebel against the colour coded covers telling you what you should and shouldn't read.

If the argument is that action comics are targeted at men only in the same way that romance novels are targeted at women only, I'd disagree. Partly because I hate any kind of gender essentialist bullshit that tries to tell us that our gender dictates what we should or shouldn't like which in turn results in societal pressure that forces those myths to become reality, and mostly because it's just not true. Plenty of men like soppy romance and overblown soft focused plots, and plenty of women like guns and violence, and sex with their drugs. Some women prefer to read the indie comics and that's totally cool. Others only like superheroes. Also cool. Others like them all, and don't need to be repeatedly told to go and read manga instead (I read that in addition thanks) or romance novels (not for me, that's what fanfic is for).

Romance Novel (renamed!) and Power Boy (parody)Spot the difference? (Right image courtesy of vito-excalibur at livejournal.com)

In fact manga is the one argument trotted out almost as often, suggesting that manga is all for women therefore that's why they like it. BZZZZZ. Wrong. I actually wrote an essay about the portrayal of women in shōnen/seinen manga compared with US superhero comics during my MLitt. Part of my focus was on the large number of women readers who enjoy those particular manga demographics, ie the ones aimed at boys and men. The ones aimed specifically at a female audience - shōjo and josei - make up 15.5% of the overall manga market in Japan, while the largest seinen magazines sell over a million issues per week with up to one third of their readership being female. The idea then that manga for girls is alone what attracts women is rubbish when it comes to the home market, but of course in the US and UK and other countries, it is the girls manga that has really grabbed our attention.

Why? Because as Paul Gravett points out, the explosive growth in the international market is driven predominatly by teenage girls, "a high-spending demographic that American publishers had all but abandoned." In Japan though, where shōnen and seinen manga account for 76.1% of the manga market, the magazine editors have deliberately targeted the lucrative female demographic while maintaining the male audience. Female characters took on stronger roles, became main characters, and all without a drop in audience - the opposite in fact.

With a female manga readership of around 60% in the US, it's quite the contrast with the US comics publishers that downplay the potential of their female audience. A Neilson survey carried out on DC readers was conducted across three separate platforms (with varying numbers of respondents): in-store (167), online (5336), and through digital retailers (626). In-store and digital retailers polled their female readership at 9%. The online survey polled 23% female. Yet despite the latter having a larger sample size, DC Comics maintained that the correct figure was 7% and that the online survey had been "skewed". Female readers pointed out that the in-store (and digital) survey was itself biased as many women did not feel comfortable entering male dominated comic book stores, and there was a sense of disappointment that DC Comics were ignoring their female readership.

Claymore - Norihiro YagiClaymore, a kick ass shōnen title with a predominantly female cast.

Back to the beefcake. Do romance novels have bare chested muscle barrels on the front cover? Quite a lot of them do yes. So? There seems to be this misconception that wanting more women creating comics and more women characters in comics, with greater diversity of appearance, means we don't want any sexy ladies at all. That complaining about the sexualisation of women characters means the person making the complaint must be a prude who wears five layers of cardigans and lives in a house made of cats. Catwoman, need I remind my regular readers, is a favourite title of mine. Tarpé Mills' Miss Fury, which if you haven't read go and do so now, is stuffed to the brim with glamorous ladies and cheesecake. Jackie Ormes' magnificent work including her Torchy Brown strips, Candy, and Patty Jo 'n' Ginger, has some of the finest and sexiest pin up art you will ever see.

As I wrote in this extensive piece for Comic Heroes, there's nothing wrong with cheesecake. But it's not all we want to eat. Catwoman is a sexy character who uses her looks and her wiles to get one over on the men around her. There is nothing wrong with having a character like that. However, when every other woman character is dressed as provocatively as Catwoman, or has the exact same slim yet busty body type, it's really boring. Characters like Catwoman and Emma Frost should stand out, just as they would in real life, not be part of comic universes where every women is unzipped to the waist with their ass in the air. It's not like Alfred and Jimmy Olsen would look particularly ripped in spandex. And as for the Catwoman #0 cover with bouncy-ball-Catwoman, well I think we can all agree that Selina would rip that to shreds, because damn that ain't hot no matter how high she bounces.

My small study using the Bechdel Test and Reverse Bechdel Test showed the difficulty comics have with including women characters, and that this was a situation that was improving - thanks in at least part to the pressure from women fans. The results for DC showed that the selection was fairly balanced which is to be expected given their high number of books with a female lead. But many of the team books across the board floundered when it came to showing women as often as they did men, with the notable exceptions of Demon Knights and the Mighty Thor, both of which are, coincidently, bloody good reads.

DC: Bechdel Test

Which brings me to my next point. As we can see, superhero and action comics are improving though there will always be troughs and peaks. DC seem committed to their female led ongoing titles - Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Catwoman, Supergirl, Voodoo, Wonder Woman, World's Finest - and have made moves to bring more female creators into their main lines with Ann Nocenti taking over Green Arrow and next Catwoman, and Amanda Conner working on Silk Spectre. Marvel might have dumped all their previous female led titles, but the new Captain Marvel is absolutely stunning and is a book that could certainly prove to Marvel that an audience exists for these titles when done well. Image continues to cheerfully take over the world with books like Saga, Skullkickers, Debris, Revival and Glory while Dark Horse have Alabaster: Wolves, Conan the Barbarian, Orchid, and Buffy. Just a small selection of titles there, but all most definitely in the action category amongst others. All of which either star women characters or have women creators, and all boasting fans of all backgrounds and tastes.

Some of those titles have readers that disagree with their portrayal of women but the fact remains, there is a larger number than ever to choose from which is most definitely a step in the right direction. When we look for the faults and problematic issues it can be hard to remember how far we have actually come.

Superhero comics are changing, and will continue to change, particularly in the light of how well the Avengers film has performed. It won't escape the notice of Disney that a large part of those ticket sales were to women, and that a huge fanbase has sprung up around the movie, separate to the comics fandom but surely easy to integrate. Where is the Black Widow title to appeal to all the new Natasha fans? A Hawkeye mini that looks into the past of the movie canon character? Disney is no stranger to marketing around a movie, or to a female fanbase. Of course much of their output is horribly gender essentialist - girls must like princesses! boys must like heroes! no mixing!! - but I've seen a surprising number of new fans trying to brave the confusing world of Marvel continuity, essentially waving their money around trying to buy things and being disappointed at the lack of options. With the mainstream media still in shock at the success of The Hunger Games movie, female lead and all, it may take some time for brains to catch up, but we'll get there. Before never is up.

Comic Heroes: Women in Comics

But catering to these potential new fans, and the frustated existing ones, does not dilute the comics industry integrity or anything similar that might be thrown forward as a viable argument against increasing diversity. Adding more well rounded female characters doesn't require removing any male ones. Adding more stories doesn't mean subtracting others. Having more women with more clothes on doesn't mean Catwoman has to wear an oversized muumuu. I wouldn't have got into reading superhero comics if I didn't enjoy reading about dudes dealing out hyper-violence to bad guy punks, and my love of cheesecake is why I love the new Catwoman so much and salivate over Amanda Conner's art.

Yet the idea of more women reading comics or having more women in comics is, apparently, terrifying. The article complaining about how women pretending to be geeks was titled as being about booth babes, yet wasn't really about them at all. Rather it was about women who were judged to be not that attractive really, cosplaying for attention. Wow, let me find my "I give a damn" stick. Some people dress up for attention you say?! And here I thought the male cosplayers that are totally built were choosing their figure hugging or Conan chest exposing costumes purely because they identified with the character. And the many people wanting to  feel their biceps was just a happy side effect. Hot damn.

If someone is enjoying themselves then who the fuck cares if they can answer how many times Jean Grey has died or debate whether DC should be publishing Before Watchmen and causing Angry Beard Man more angriness? And judging them on how they look? Get out. Who gets to say who is a real geek and who isn't? Why on earth does it matter?! HULK SMASH.

Avengers StarsSorry guys, on account of your good looks I'll have to ask you to sit this geek exam to get in. Stop laughing.

Do we ask guys at conventions to prove their geekness or hand in their geek badge? Does it depend how conventionally attractive they are? What their BMI is? Whether they're popular with the opposite sex? I go to conventions and really don't care why other people are there. I assume they're there to enjoy themselves and probably because they're interested in one or more aspects of what's going on at the convention. I don't assume the latter and don't care if they're there just to have fun (how dare they!). My boyfriend gets dragged to conventions he has no interest in because he's a semi-pro photographer and I bribe him. He's a big gamer, a top coder, and builds computers and websites for fun. Definitely a geek right? Has no interest in comics though (believe me, I've tried). So is he a faker for going to cons and having a good time?

Booth babes - conventionally attractive women paid to dress up as characters or in skimpy outfits in order to promote a product. Like... every advert on tv then? Everything is turned up to 11 at conventions though, and is it really a surprise that an industry that is perceived as being inherently sexist, perceived as being solely for men, perceived as being interested in all those tits and ass covers in the shops, would use that kind of tactic? It's another remnant of an industry that is behind itself. Just as comic book shops can be incredibly unwelcoming (or far too welcoming when it comes to addressing my breasts) to women, and comic book forums can be a hive of bro's driving off anyone that doesn't worship their mighty penii, comics as being only for men, and only dude bro men at that, is an idea that needs to die.

 Formal DickPoor old Dick. (Courtesy of moonfruitcomics.com)

Women being judged on their looks, their intentions, or their geek knowledge is just another sign that "women in comics" is still a much needed term amongst fans and commentators. The fact that publishers still can't quite grasp their audience, and that the mainstream media continues to be absolutely flabbergasted by the sight of a woman in such an industry, shows that there is still a lot of work to be done. Every time I'm told to sit down and shut up or condescended to, I'm reminded of how important it is to speak out. But don't just concentrate on the negatives, on all the steps still to take. So much progress has been made, and there are so many titles to choose from now and support while we continue to talk the talk and walk the walk.

I plan to keep asking DC to increase the diversity of their creators, to challenge Marvel to stick with its female led titles and use that mighty mouse muscle, to pounce on every bit of genius that Image are pumping out, while remembering not to take Buffy for granted at Dark Horse, and to embrace new avenues like Monkeybrain Comics. And yes, I'll rejoice in the bigger steps being made in indie and literary comics, but will mind not to focus on them at the exclusion of superhero/action comics and their fans and creators. And as an aside, I should mention that comics academia has little to zero of any of these problems.

Why am I so invested in this? Because I love comics, and I love superhero and action comics. But the numbers are dying and it seems absurd when I look at the size of the potential audience out there. DC and Marvel have an army of iconic characters in their hands, recognisable to many who don't read comics, either via films, cartoons, or just their presence in our pop culture. Where are the Batman comics that a 7 year old kid can read? The Wonder Woman for a 4 year old boy who's a massive fan? The crime action strip starring a woman that appeals to all the crime fiction fans out there? Or the Black Widow series for the mass of spend-happy new fans?

Black Widow FanartThe tip of the massive fanart iceberg (courtesy of alicexz.tumblr.com)

These are fantastic characters with a pool of fantastic creators to work on them, characters that have been with us for decades and still prevail with new characters and titles joining them all the time that are utterly fantastic (Saga), covering everything from light entertainment to comics that try and change the world. In a risk-averse publishing industry, it's comforting to stay with established characters and not shake things up too much, but Image have shown that new IP is a stronger and stronger contender all the same.

I don't think superheroes are going anywhere any time soon, and I don't think women who love the comics are either. It so ain't over yet.

 

Further reading:
Articles tagged with Women in Comics

Comments (13) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Well said! That article felt very much like a Bush “Mission Accomplished” moment, but to the benefit of no one.

    • Thanks! Yes, I get that it was intended as a positive statement but it kinda glossed over a few too many things for me.

  2. Excellent article. Thank you.

  3. The last time my comic book store hosted a panel of webcomic creators, somebody pointed out that we only got in ONE female creator, vs. about 8 or 10 males. Was that indicative of the sexism inherent in the medium, someone asked. Their reply? “Most of the female creators don’t NEED to go to conventions, because their comics are popular enough that they make all the money they need just selling merchandise online.” XD

    • Hah, that’s true – webcomics certainly seem the domain of women sometimes! From Kate Beaton and Meredith Gran to Trudy Cooper and Sarah Ellerton, I love that they’ve all gone straight to the source as it were when it comes to their audience :)

  4. Great. Very nice to see opinions like.

    Kisses from Brazil.

  5. “In Japan though, where shōnen and seinen manga account for 76.1% of the manga market, the magazine editors have deliberately targeted the lucrative female demographic while maintaining the male audience. Female characters took on stronger roles, became main characters, and all without a drop in audience – the opposite in fact.”

    The argument could be made that the growing female readership in the shonen and seinen categories has less to do with the evolution of how women are portrayed than the devolution of how most of the male characters are designed and portrayed. Most of the current crop of so-called ‘shonen’ manga isn’t really all that shonen (geared toward boys) at all, it’s just marginally less blatantly shojo than the titles that is labeled and marked as such.

    Take the Gundam franchise, for instance. From its inception in the late 70s to the late 90s, the various anime and comics series that formed its canon were high end shonen, with nuanced characters (including female ones, Tomino was relatively progressive on that front) and ambitious military sci-fi-style storytelling and themes.

    Then with the advent of Gundam Wing, things changed radically. The characters in Wing (and in later series like Gundam Seed) had decidedly shojo elements to their designs and the storytelling became more soap-operatic in scale/tone. A series protagonist in Gundam’s earlier years looked like the Japanese equivalent of the young male lead of a Spielberg movie — now he looks like a cross between Justin Bieber and Edward Cullen.

    I think this sort of ‘targeted marketing’ that has some male (as well as old-school female) fans concerned. Personally, I enjoy many of the comics you positively cited above (Demon Knights, the new Captain Marvel, Brubaker’s Catwoman stuff, etc.) as ‘female friendly’ and would be happy to see more series targeted at young readers (the return of Tiny Titans, a Lauren Faust-inspired take on WW, etc.) — but I am concerned that more aggressive initiatives to target women readers with more conventional sensibilities (at the editorial and content levels) would likely result in something along the lines of the ‘Gundam Wing-ification’ of the Marvel and/or DC universes.

    And if that were to happen, I do think a large chunk of the existing superhero readership (including many current female fans) would feel alienated and leave en masse. They’re not going to stick around for crying bishie Batman the way most of the Gundam crowd did when their series leads devolved into weepy boy-band types.

    • I think that’s certainly been part of it, but I guess at least with superhero comics there are already so many variations that expanding that wouldn’t really harm the grittier takes. When DC animation inspired Batman: Mad Love sits alongside the darker Batman: The Killing Joke, nobody bats an eyelid.

      It is a danger to be sure, that if the female market is targeted successfully that it might subsume the male demographic entirely, but I think the success of the superhero movies alleviate that slightly: women make up half the audience for films like Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, which in itself is a sign that gender essentialist marketing isn’t necessary. Only increased diversity.

      If some titles do change one way, but other titles come along that cater for all, it’s probably still better than the way it is at present.

  6. Great article! I don’t know why I’m continually surprised by the thick-headedness of the bean counters, but I am. They don’t see the huge market of women for video games, either. Are you familiar with Melissa Silverstein’s Women and Hollywood? http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/ She’s written often about that same lack of understanding of the real markets out there.

  7. I needed to read this. I felt times were changing, so of course things around us seventy years ago have to change too.


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