How to get women into comics: Part a Billion

November 3rd, 2010 by | Tags:

Recently a friend of mine got into a conversation about how to get more women into comics. I’m beginning to wonder if such conversations are necessary, considering the plethora of women into comics right now. From the moment I got into comics, I went online and was neck deep in female and feminist comics discussion. It was everywhere. With the overall superhero comics market shrinking, though, I guess everyone is looking for a potentially untapped market.

Since women tipped the scales of the US workforce, becoming the majority in 2009, they became a good group to market to. The conventional wisdom for getting more women into comics is that there need to be more, tougher, and more celebrated female heroes. I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that comic book companies are looking to put out more titles with female heroes. Not only is it the morally right thing to do, I think overall it’s in their self-interest. Petrifying a medium is a good way to maximize current trends, but it guarantees failure in the future.

Most of the female heroes on the shelves now won’t be around in a decade, and won’t get to issue 600. Fine. A few will, and they’ll shape the rest of continuity. The rest will be great supporting characters, minor favorites, and sketches for better, more iconic characters to come. Currently, they’ll encourage female, and male, readers to buy more titles than they would otherwise. More money in the short term leading to more money in the long term. All good. But not, I think, a way to reel in new readers. One of the toughest things about understanding gender is figuring out the way men and women do and do not inhabit the same world. From the time they are children, people treat men and women differently. Different clothes, different warnings about what to look out for, different reactions to accomplishments and transgressions, whether the child loves it and thrives or feels estranged from it and shrugs it off, it changes their experience of the world. A woman alone at night is generally seen as vulnerable. A man alone at night is often seen as a possible aggressor. Drop a woman into a room full of other women and she blends. Drop a man in and he sticks out.

This shapes our views and outlooks. This, in part, makes us want different things. On the other hand, while our experience of the world is tweaked, most of our experience is the same. Iron Man is male, but a woman watching him fly around the sky is not going to think, “Wow, that does not seem in any way cool. I certainly would not enjoy that.” A woman watching Spider-Man isn’t going to think, “Golly, the idea of a powerless nerd suddenly getting power and struggling to use it in an appropriate way is not something I can relate to. I want to read about a different thing.” It’s these heavyweight characters that bring in the guys, and I think it’s these same characters will bring in the girls.

The main trick is giving them something to do read once they’re in. To lure young boys into reading Batman stories they gave him a young male sidekick. They gave them episodic stories that were easily picked up at any point. If a woman were to walk into a comic book store next week what would she see? Yes, she’d see Batgirl and Oracle, neither of which has had a close tie with Batman for years, and both of which are only brushing up against the blockbuster character during part of a multi-year, multi-title, multi-event, multi-crossover story arc. Iron Man is having a slightly better time with Pepper Potts taking a big role in the current story, but that was also tied to several massive events.

While I can appreciate the risk of a new series with a new character – especially when they’re tied to one of the Big Biggie characters – I think that that’s what’s needed to bring more women into comics. Not miniseries that women will only see should they come in during a specific six-week period. Not a new independent superheroine who no new reader will have heard of. When women wander into a comic book story, I think they would skip over the unfamiliar and mega-numbered titles and pick up, for example, “Tony and Pepper” #8, or the first trade collecting “Superman and Lois Lane.” They would do this not because they are women, but because they are people and these techniques worked on much of the people currently reading comics.

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13 comments to “How to get women into comics: Part a Billion”

  1. Many of us believe there are few female comics fans because we see few of them at comic shops and conventions.

    And I believe that not seeing oneself reflected in a series, medium, or genre can take its toll over time – especially on adult readers. I and others have gotten sick of seeing non-Black characters on movies and tv shows, from time to time, and have reacted in various ways. One of those ways was to flock to the books, tv shows, and movies that featured “us.” I believe the same is true of many women.

    I don’t think including Pepper or Lois in a story (or AS the story) is going to have the same effect on men as on women – certainly not on the same scale. Men will care. Sure. But I think equal billing will make more women see the potential for comics to be something other than a four-color boys club.

  2. I don’t know if you can attract too many women with stories about people dressing in spandex and going around beating criminals, even if the people doing the beating are women. Women seem more interested about relationships…

  3. I’m assuming we’re just talking direct market, Big 2, and/or superheroes here. In which case, I agree. If it’s the entire artform/business of comics, I have to say that the problem doesn’t match my reading experiences.

  4. Well, Ms.(Mr.?) Db105, are you sure you’ve consulted every woman ever on the subject? I don’t remember anyone asking me or the other female comics fans I know. While most of them had Sandman or Persepolis as a gateway drug, those stories aren’t so much about relationships. Romantic ones, anyway. I, for one, am a huge superhero buff from the start, and a sucker for a good adventure. The more explosions, dinosaurs, giant robots and talking gorillas, the better. Just give me a good story and decent art.

    For me, it’s not so much about seeing a female character on the cover, but what happens when I open the book. I find much more off-putting, for example, to see virtually every heroine with a huge power go crazy, evil, or somehow unable to handle that power, like Scarlet Witch or, more recently, Ice in JL: Generation Lost. Now there’s a title I’m dropping like it has cooties.

  5. @Db105: Actually, I would argue that comic books are all about relationships now. Have you seen a lot of stories about Captain America just – foiling bad guys? Or Batman?

    Right now Batman is all about Dick and Damian trying to work together. The Return of Bruce Wayne has his visiting all his co-fighters and talking about their relationship.

    Wolverine is currently going to hell, and he’s sent there by his son – who had a large number of trades exploring his relationship with his father. It ties in to a series about his daughter, and her difficulty in maintaining relationships with a team.

    X-Men has been a soap opera since it started. Teen Titans has been one since the – what eighties? Seventies?

    Civil War was ALL about relationships and what happened when people chose sides.

    These days, most bad guys attack because of their previous relationships with the heroes. Revenge, twisted admiration, even love – it’s all about relationships. The heroes almost never fight people they don’t know anymore.

    I just think they should take this focus on relationships and spin it in a way that will appeal to women and outsiders.

  6. You know, it’s possible to have caped people foiling criminals AND have relationships. I remember being a kid, right around the Dark Knight Returns (for I am old) and dropping Batman and Detective because Bruce Wayne didn’t appear anymore. It was all Batman-fight-crime, and Batman-never-rests, and I got bored. I still approach comics that way, much preferring anything with a supporting cast, relationship issues, etc. You could read Paul Levitz’ Legion, and later Starman, I never connected with the Rayner era of Green Lantern, but he often had a girlfriend and friends, right? (Refrigerator issues aside …).

    I don’t mean doing a complete split: Hero in mask fights crime. Out of mask, girlfriend has commitment issues, or someone cheats, or other daytime soap fodder. I can read Birds of Prey and connect with the characters as people, as well as fighters. Fraction’s oft-criticized Iron Man run has a great, vivid take on Tony, and Brubaker’s Cap has had great stuff involving Barnes and the people around Captain America. Any good Fantastic Four run works with the character’s personalities and needs (even if most writers repeat the same few beats). Ron Marz’ Witchblade spends a lot of time on Sara’s personal life. Palmiotti and Conner made Power Girl more than a punch-crooks book. Some of these things are done well, some less so, but it’s clear that you can have a great action story that feels like it’s populated with people who also have other concerns.

    Women who don’t like spandex fighting might like other kinds of comics (just like guys). Many women who do, or who could, perhaps need to see easier ways in to compelling characters with interesting, well-rounded stories. Hell, I’d read a lot more comics if more were like that.

  7. ,If a woman were to walk into a comic book store next week what would she see? Yes, she’d see Batgirl and Oracle, neither of which has had a close tie with Batman for years, and both of which are only brushing up against the blockbuster character during part of a multi-year, multi-title, multi-event, multi-crossover story arc.

    Esther, I actually think Batgirl is a great on-ramp for females into comics particularly superhero books. Batman does appear and is mentioned enough to leverage that connection. But the book offers an enclosed story relatively free of cross-overs and relationships between women. I’ve written about how I think it is the perfect on-ramp for other reasons as well here: http://dcwomenkickingass.tumblr.com/post/905308004/onrampbatgir

  8. @dcwomenkickingass: God, I love Batgirl. That is a relatively new character. She still doesn’t work very closely with Batman, though, which I think would draw in the most people.

    Still, if I had to rec one title for a newbie, that would be it.

  9. For what it’s worth (seeing as I’m a MAN and not entirely new to comics), I can kind of second that idea of Batgirl being a good comic for new readers, seeing as it’s the comic that finally got me to add a DC title to my regular monthly purchases.

    I think another thing that Batgirl has going for it just in general is that it provides a nice contrast to the darker, more serious stories that too many comics have these days. It’s the same kind of lighthearted comic book fun that caused me to get so much enjoyment out of titles like the pre-retooled Marvel Adventures line and the more recent Thor and the Warriors Four.

  10. “Since women tipped the scales of the US workforce, becoming the majority in 2009, they became a good group to market to.”

    Advertisers have ALWAYS chased the female demographic. Much of what passes for “feminism” in the media is really someone who wants your money playing on your vanity. (You’re not vain? They think you are.)

  11. […] at 4th Letter!, Esther Inglis-Arkell has posted what she calls “the billionth” essay on the subject of getting women to read […]

  12. This essay has the same failing as at least 999 million out of the other billion; “comics” does not mean “superhero comics”, and “getting more women to read comics” does not have to mean “getting more women to read superhero comics”.

    I’m female, and have been reading comics for about 16 years now. I have never read superhero comics (aside from Watchmen), and probably never will; it’s just not my kind of thing. (Among other issues, I don’t like the “decades of backstory by hundreds of different writers” continuity thing that “big name” superhero comics do.) Of my female comics-reading friends, few of them read more than the occasional superhero title. Fun Home and Maus (not to mention manga) has brought more of them into the comics field than any number of variations “Superman and Lois Lane” would have.

  13. Purely anecdotal..

    I find when trying to introduce my female friends to comics, the super-tights-set is a turn off (as JRB noted). The main trick to bring more female readers and creators into the fold is by diversifying the market. I feel as though this will expand the audience to more people in general. It only seems to be the American market that focuses so exclusively on a single genre.

    I’m currently the Art Director and contributor to a comic anthology series titled “The Gathering.” We recently picked up the amazing talents of Gail Simone for our second issue, in part, because we focus on a wide range of material. You can learn more about it here if you’re inclined…


    We’re also currently looking for more artists.. If you are a female artist, I encourage you to read the above link for details.