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Genderfixing Comics: How? - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
June 16th, 2011
12:03 pm


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Genderfixing Comics: How?
DC is rebooting its universe, starting every single comic it has over at #1. The wisdom of this is debatable. The idea is, naturally, to provide a jumping-on point for new readers... But every jumping-on point for someone new is also a potentially jumpiing-off point for someone old, and comics is a graying industry. Plus, you know, what do you do in three years when there's a new generation of fifth-graders who are looking down the barrel at issue #36?

Regardless, the big problem is the traditional gender bias in comics: which is to say that of the fifty-two new books, only 1.9% have female creators. And that's actually worse than it looks, because of the "two" female writers, there's actually only one (the redoubtable Gail Simone pulling double duty), and there are zero female artists doing the interiors (you know, the twenty-two pages that actually matter storywise).

I did the slacktivist thing and Tweeted tongue-cluckingly about it when it first came to my attention, but when I actually start to think about solving the problem, my head spins.

The problem with the comics industry is that it's almost been so actively hostile to women for years that comparatively few women read comics... And I can't blame them. The superhero comics that are roughly 97% of the market are almost exclusively male power fantasies, with women stuffed into refrigerators, drawn in ludicrously inflated ways that reduces them to tits, ass, and a mouth, and reduced to supporting roles. And they're sold in filthy stores that are often staffed by creepy guys who hit on every woman who wanders through the door.

There are exceptions, of course - there are women who actively enjoy the power fantasies and find the depictions sexy, there are comics that do get women right and comics so well-written they're just plain good for everybody, and thank God my local comic book store is clean and polite. So if you're the exception, then I'm happy for you and there's nothing wrong with that.

But generally, when I flip through the comics rack at my local store, I go "Oh dear." And I'm a comics fan, dammit.

So what we have here is this increasingly stagnant pool of guy strips for a certain breed of guys, which has been reducing for years like a bubbling sauce until its taste is so pungent that only a few want to taste it - guys or gals, since the comics industry has shrunk considerably over the past thirty years. There are grand exceptions from time to time, usually by independent creators, and much hullaballoo is made about the quality work that gets done... But the day-to-day, line-work of making the latest Jonah Hex or Spider-Man or Power Girl or Booster Gold is done by comics writers who've been fostered in this self-referential culture. Meanwhile, we spin around and around in a shrinking spiral, being made increasingly irrelevant by the movies of the comics, which are frequently more exciting.

How do you break that?

The temptation is, of course, to make it all the girls' problem - a solution I see all the time in my day job of Magic: the Gathering. "Women just need to descend on our hobby in droves and make a space!" But that's effectively saying, "Hold your noses, girls, you may hate this for the next three years, but eventually you'll make it yours." Not so much. I love Magic, and I haven't wanted to play at my local game shop because, well, it looks like the LARP version of Hoarders. Telling me to suck it up until things get better is a solution that will not work when this is, you know, a hobby and not a war.

(As it is, Magic's always had its female girl-power-style teams, which I support, but they've always remained minority factions... Even if, I must note happily, the woman-to-man ration has improved drastically over the past five years.)

So if you can't tell women to infiltrate commando-style, then just tell DC and Marvel to break the market! Stop all of this juvenile crap, and start making mature comics for real people! Except that doesn't work, either. Right now, the comics market works tenuously, which is to say that at least Joe Loyal is still buying comics. Change the nature of the comics he buys weekly for comfort-reading, and he might just walk away... And if you alienate him, then you have to rely on getting the regular attention of people who don't buy comics, and hope they start buying weekly. That's an issue.

Note that the problem is not the fringe comics. DC's always had Vertigo for more "mainstream" attempts at readerships, to some success, and the indie comics have always had a greater percentage of women. We're talking about the DC #1 lineup, the run-of-the-mill Supermans and Batmans and Wonder Womans that have to come out weekly and can't depend on the genius of a Neil Gaiman or a Brian K. Vaughan to make them tick. We're talking the comics that have to be basically interchangeable, so if Jill Schmoe leaves she can be replaced by Jane Doe without a hitch. The stuff that sells weekly, regularly, providing a cash flow that doesn't vary.

And if you change that to be more women-friendly, what happens if the old fans leave and the new fans don't arrive? Hello, market collapse. And at this point, the formula for writing these kinda of workaday comics is so well-established that you really have to be a deep comics nerd to write them, meaning that only the fanniest of the fans can get in, meaning that largely unless you buy into the culture, you won't get in. Hence, few women.

So they should just start a line and open up new not just women-friendly comics, but comics that are friendly to people who don't read comics! Great! Except that you have the problem of reaching people who don't read comics. Always a huge trick. People have been trying it over and over again since the independent comics market began in the 1980s, and while you have some isolated moments of success in the people who love Bone or Elfquest or A Distant Soil, they don't last.

Strangely, like books, the mainstream public doesn't love the format, they love their individual authors and series - and the comics market is largely dependent on people who'll buy the latest Spider-Man no matter who's writing it because they love Spider-Man. Tricksy.

But let's say you crack that. You have found this wonderful female artist and writer team who's doing comics, and they're brilliant, and writing stuff that connects with a mainstream audience! Great!

They don't need you!

...in this age of webcomics, why the hell does Kate Beaton or Kaja Foglio or Megan Rose Gedris need you? Sure, they like their compilations and their individual comics just as much as anyone, but then you're not in charge of the show, you're the aftermarket packaging. Profitable, perhaps, but not a comics market making.

So that's the problem. I don't know how you fix it. "Send in a horde of women and ask them to hold their noses" asks a lot of women to endure an entirely optional thing for too long. "Change the main lineup to make it different" risks alienating the slender thread the comics market hangs upon. And "get more women involved!" overlooks that they are involved, just not with you.

As Gini says, "When I was young, I sat around with my friends solving the world's problems. Now, I sit around enumerating them." This feels like enumeration, but I really don't see a solution. Alas.

(EDIT: Though as kyburg notes, manga is targeted at women, and is fantastically successful at this. So I guess I should be saying, "Genderfixing American-style comics.")

This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/118660.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.

(129 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)

EDIT: Removed a prepositional phrase.

They don't need you!

They need DC the same reason you need a publisher.

Edited at 2011-06-16 04:21 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 11:14 pm (UTC)
No, actually, I don't need DC. Ferrett got it right. Though Kate Beaton has reportedly been doing work for Marvel, she doesn't really need to. She's already got more readers than any of Marvel's series. We're all getting by pretty well without a paycheck from the Big Two.

I go back and forth on whether I'd like to work for a place like DC or Marvel myself. Really, there are two reasons I'd want to work there. 1: I like superheroes, and 2: I'd like to make their comics better. By better, I mean give them a fresh perspective that they haven't had much of. Ease some of the load on Gail Simone (who is my hero for all that she puts up with). But I wouldn't work for them as a means to help my career.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:27 pm (UTC)
take the money you made from the latest batman movie, go to all the art schools/lit schools and recruit, actively, a pile of female artisits and writers and give them a 2 year contract and free reign to fly or fail. keep the winners and give them raises and say thanks but no thanks to those who don't succeed. Rinse and repeat. It's called long term thinking.
get marvel and image to go halvsies. a bigger comic market is a win for everybody right?
hell I bet if they gave Cat a nice paycheck she'd write some shit for them. why, she's a proven YA force and everything.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:29 pm (UTC)
Isn't that what Minx was?
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC)

here is why

twitter: Madison24_7

Number one: many male comics fans appear to take their hobby WAY too seriously - compare with the dismissive attitude women have towards their beloved romance books: many will apologize for wasting their time on the Chick Lit and yet buy more; all along knowing it is not a high brow read.
Takeaway: can comics evolve to tackle more light hearted topics?

Number two: How do you portrait in a graphic form "Her heart flittered with trepidation when he touched her.."? like it or not, there are many women reader who are looking for emotional depth of the story and the relationship between characters rather than a fight between arch enemies.

Number three: What's in it for me? How reading a comic can improve my mood/life etc. give me a payback? What's a payback for women who read comics?

[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:49 pm (UTC)

Re: here is why

If you think comics are incapable of portraying emotional depth, you have not been reading the right comics.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:43 pm (UTC)
Ursula Vernon doesn't need them either.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC)
Truth. I don't read her, but I probably shouldn't forget her.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
This will never be fixed for the same reason the color balance in comics will never be fixed. A comic starring a woman or ethnic minority (or disabled person, or gay/bi person, or ...), or with "too many" women/minorities/etc, is seen as only having women/minorities/etc as its core audience.

It's assumed that the core audience for your regular comic starring and written by mostly white guys is everyone who reads comics. But for example Static Shock, they assume is only interesting to black people. Wonder Woman is assumed to be only interesting to women (or people who like bondage, depending on the era). Why would white guys want to read about a black guy or a chick? The comics industry assumes they wouldn't, and they're where the money is because it's a self-perpetuating cycle.

The industry is very hostile to minority and female creative people of all types, meaning the very few books written "for" them are rarely written "by" them, and generally portray them as seen by someone who doesn't really care to understand them. I don't see this changing either.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC)
As a white man who wants to read comics about minorities, it makes me sad how right you are.

This is part of why I like Runaways (and it's actually interesting and not a nest of bullshit references I don't care about).

I absolutely love the medium, I think comics are one of the best story-telling mediums out there, but I hate the industry. I'm only reading Runaways now because it's ostensibly "over" and collected into TPBs, so I can but it without the crappy ads and at a price that's actually reasonable for how much time I spend with it. Once in a while, I buy a Batman or Spider-Man collection, if it's a whole arc, and I've heard good things about the creative team or already know them. Sometimes I buy comics based on The Guild or on Joss Whedon properties written by his friends.

But why should I support an industry that even I, who have been reading comics my entire 28 years on this planet (give or take), can't penetrate as a fan, when I can find better stuff online for free? Dr. McNinja? Sure, Dark Horse prints collections now, but it never would have gotten off the ground in print. Kate Beaton, who is arguably the best thing to ever happen to existence? Never would have gotten into the industry normally.

There are so many problems with comics the only thing I can think of is to keep making indie comics and webcomics, and let the big companies come to the people who prove themselves, because the market is way too fragile to try and support new talent, as sad as that makes me.
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
Market a line of superheroine merchandise to girls a la the Disney Princess franchise. Seriously.
[User Picture]
Date:June 18th, 2011 09:00 am (UTC)
I can actually see this working.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:55 pm (UTC)
"DC is rebooting its universe, starting every single comic it has over at #1."

Is this going to be a side effect of the Flashpoint event?
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)
In a word, yes.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 04:55 pm (UTC)
I'll be spending a weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center with more women who read comics than I can count. Otherwise known as Anime-Expo. You want to see a demographic that changed RADICALLY towards the feminine, I got one riiiiight here.

Even harem anime is better than what we got going.

I'm about ready to start counting on my fingers. Here's some doozies:

Scott Adams complete denial in progress regarding what one does with a woman (hint: you don't write books for them)
Paying For It is used to defend prostitution as empowerment for women, not the reverse.

I feel like it's the late seventies again. *grumble*
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:08 pm (UTC)
Good point. I added it to my main goal.

Chester Brown's "Paying For It" is actually a very good book that makes some extremely uncomfortable arguments. I quite enjoyed it, and think to label it as mysogynist simply because it doesn't fit into the assigned roles of "Prostitution == badness" is largely playing into slut-shaming.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
One of the things that I find as a woman who's a comics fan (Marvel, currently; I've never been into DC, but I did have my decade of indies) is that there's not a lot of recognition of kind of a third gender, in a sense. I mean, I don't lose my shit over Ms Marvel hanging out in, essentially, a swimsuit. I recognise that it's ludicrous, and I recognise the equal offense that Iron Man is (rarely) hanging out in a thong, but I also recognise that, right now at least (we will not speak of Avengers #200) Carol Danvers is a powerhouse in her own right. I'm (somewhat cautiously) stepping foot into Black Widow's stories, with the hope that I will find something similar (certainly she's currently a badass, but she started out life as a femme fatale who seduced men as her MO).

This is, of course, completely eliding the existence of characters like Tigra, but then again, I have happily never ever read anything with Tigra in it, and I don't want to. The character seems like pointless fanboy-bait. I'll add that I definitely see the issues with that type of character; the irony of ignoring her is not lost on me. But I am more putting forth the opinion that, at least in Marvel, there are female characters I want to read and will enjoy reading; it's not all completely dire there.

But then again, that's also partly because I'm thirty four and I've grown up in this semi-male existence of being a gamer and a comics fan and a rally-race enthusiast so I don't know how much of it is me saying "I have no problems with this," and how much of it is me saying 'And that's how it is." I mean, I don't feel like I'm saying the latter, but I have no idea that I'd even recognise it any more if I was. Partly, this is because I do have spaces to consume my hobbies that aren't skeevy (and for anyone in Seattle, I TOTALLY recommend Dreamstrands as a comic shop made of AWESOME) so I fill them with like-minded women and men who aren't the total knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who have no social skills beyond "GIRL. GIRL. GIRL. GIRL GIRL GIRL A REAL GIRL."

So, to some (great) extent I agree with you, but I also think that the other side of the pitfall is assuming that all women are the same creature. Not to say that you are, but this is something I see frequently - the 2008 election is a great example. I don't want "things designed to appeal to women" in that special way that actually means "pink and dinky and cute"; I want "things that have male and female characters who are all treated as adults with agency in their own rights." I worry that if the comics industry as a whole tries to appeal to women, they're going to create, essentially, Bella Sara, which is fine ... if you're twelve. I don't want pink-and-girly.

Also, anecdotally, I was in a comic shop in Tacoma a few weeks ago and, of the nine people in the store over the course of my visit, the employee was a woman, and six of the customers were women. All of whom, by the way, knew exactly what they wanted; it was the two men who had no clue what they were looking for. It made me laugh, really.

Edited at 2011-06-16 05:06 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
So, to some (great) extent I agree with you, but I also think that the other side of the pitfall is assuming that all women are the same creature.

Well, and that's why I was sure to say this:

"So what we have here is this increasingly stagnant pool of guy strips for a certain breed of guys, which has been reducing for years like a bubbling sauce until its taste is so pungent that only a few want to taste it - guys or gals."

The problem is that it's only to a certain type of guys, and they're not even necessarily representative of the mainstream now.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:08 pm (UTC)
I'm a woman that reads comics and I've never had any real problems with this sort of thing.
But then again, my favourite movie is Starship Troopers.

I get the impression that women get too hung up on the big breasted babes and the strong men to look past it and see that there's a story and a world in there. Sure, it may not be gender neutral paradise, but does that stop them from living their lives too? Is microsoft not a valid company because it has a man at the head? Is Near Dark for a different audience because it was written by a woman?

Yeah, shit happens to women sometimes. But a girl can want to grow up and be spider man too.
[User Picture]
Date:June 17th, 2011 02:19 am (UTC)
Exactly. Adam Strange had his eyes torn out. Nightwing was molested. Harold shot. Creeper eaten. Third Robin's dad stabbed to death. Captain Boomerang shot. Martian Manhunter killed by stabbing. Human Bomb punched to death. Uncle Sam left for dead after his entire team slaughtered. Kid Devil atomized. Hell the Green Lanterns are mentally ravaged nearly every week.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
I think the more real problem than a lack of females in the industry (you really can't drag them in kicking and screaming nor create them from pixie dust and talc) is the lack of really good female characters in comics. If there were more good female characters we'd get more females interested. And there's very few and even less are iconic.

You don't need female writers to have good female characters (as you, as a writer, no doubt know). It helps, yes, but get the good characters in there. the girls in the industry will follow.

Regardless, you're ALWAYS going to get people of any gender in the industry who are interested in .. you know ... the types of things comics are about. The guy who like big guns and action flips and lasers will just be the girls who like those same things. I don't know if i think the industry really *needs* to be equal among gender lines, because it's not about keeping women out or about talent, but about interest. I'd rather see the people that love it and are good at it. Again. better characters will draw in more people of any background.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:17 pm (UTC)
I'm a woman who's been an incredibly loyal reader of comic books in general for about 20 years. The percentage of that which was mainstream DC universe, however, is probably about the same as their current percentage of female creators (with no particular correlation, mind you, I'll read anything that interests me or has good writing).

I have, however, read a ton of DC Vertigo titles over the years. And those have definitely had a better gender balance.

There's so much more to comic books than mainstream superhero stuff, which is its own weird thing, and I'm used to it being weird and ignoring it unless it does something really cool.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC)
And that's the problem. I've read studies that show that 97% of the market is superhero stuff. And I'm not sure how much of that is selling, but it's probably close to 90%.

Which is a shame. As Pixar thinks of animation as "not just kid's stuff," I do see comics as "not just superheroes." But that's the box now, even if once it was all romances and westerns and all.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC)
I read just about every DC comic in the Superman/Batman pantheon from 1957 to about 1977. I don't recall their being particularly gender-unfriendly in those days, but then again, in those days girls weren't raised to expect any kind of equality.

In those days, you could buy comic books for a dime at any newsstand. Nowadays, besides being aimed straight at the 14-year-old boy market, you pretty much have to go to comic book stores to find them. I hated to see that happen. My kids didn't get nearly as many comic books as I did, and what they got, I thought, wasn't in the same league as those Silver Age books I loved. Maybe it was just nostalgia crowding out reality... but I don't think so.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 05:46 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure how much of it is a matter just of gender balance, and how much is a matter of the shrinking size of the market. The comics market that there is works, but it's really fragile, and honestly doesn't do that well for anybody, the retailers, who limp along and cant' return books, the publishers, who make most of their money off the movies and licensing, or even Diamond, who has exclusive distribution contracts with most everybody. So I don't know if gender balance is what would have to happen, or if it'd have to be part of an overall major change in comic publishing.

And that kind of thing is a much bigger challenge. And not entirely something the publishers have control over. Better comic shops, instead of ones that are like somebody's basement, would help, by being welcoming to a broader group of customers. The pricing of comics probably isn't sustainable, $4 a pop for a 32 page comic? When for $10 you can get a hundred page manga, that's black and white and can fit on a regular bookshelf?

And then on top of all that, you add the gender and race issues that cut out a large portion of the audience, limited styles and genres of stories, and the ever-shrinking rest of the audience, and you've got a huge mess that takes a lot to fix. CrossGen tried a big approach to this, with a variety of genres, and put out some good stuff, and were talking about distributing, but then went under big time, and exposed a lot more was wrong than just low cash reserves.

But even there, for example, the change of writers can make a big difference. I remember when Mark Waid left Ruse, the very next story was a Lost World riff that involved a lot of ladies in gold cheesecake bikinis, and I was just like "Really?"
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 10:52 pm (UTC)
You know, I'm wondering about why they do the $4 a pop model. Why don't they take a cue from the Japanese industry and take a number of comics that come out at the same rate and put them in magazines? Sure, you miss some of the collectible value (I suppose you could have copies of individual issues advertised in the magazines themselves), but it would get people attached to more titles at once, and doesn't the comics industry want that anyhow?

I would feel ripped off buying 32 pages for 4 dollars, but 20 for 160 wouldn't feel as bad, even though you get the same page count for the same cost. They'd look better on a shelf and stay in good shape without protective covers for longer, too!
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 06:06 pm (UTC)
I will read graphic novel compilations, but I am never going to be a by-issue comic book reader because they're too _short_. I don't want 20 pages of comic and then wait for the next 20 pages and then...

When 1602 came out I picked up the first couple issues and then I threw my hands up and waited for the graphic novel. I want my story, but I want it NOW.
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2011 07:32 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with this. Reading an issue takes less time than watching a 30 minute sitcom, even if I'm studying every panel. TS/DR
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