A mainly female audience gathered for Marvel Comics’ The Women Of Marvel Panel, part of Comic-Con International in San Diego. Moderator and host of Marvel’s “The Weekly Watcher” Grace Randolph began the Oxygen Network-sponsored panel by playing an advertisement for Oxygen highlighting the network’s numerous makeover and reality shows. Dead silence followed the loud, minute-long advertisement, prompting Randolph to quickly thank the two Oxygen executives present in the audience and move on to introducing the members of the panel: comic book colorist Christina Strain, writer Marjorie Liu, ex-Marvel editor and writer Louise Simonson, Marvel Entertainment Social Media Coordinator Janna O’Shea and Marvel Entertainment photographer and web designer Judith Stephens.
In rapid-fire succession, Randolph asked the panel members questions, starting with asking each person if they feel it is a positive or negative thing to have a panel separating women out from the rest of comic book creators.
“For the longest time, I’ve just been about people in general getting into comics,” said Strain. The colorist, best known for her work on Marvel’s “Runaways,” went on to say she joined the panel years ago because she wanted to make sure fans knew that there were women working at Marvel Comics.
“It’s nice to highlight that there are more women because there are negative women in comics discussions, so it’s good to let people know that we’re in comics and like it,” said Strain. However, Simonson was of a different mind.
“I used to hate women in comics panels and refuse to be on them because I didn’t like being singled out. I felt like they were saying, like a trick dog, ‘Oh look she can do this trick too!'” said Simonson as the audience laughed. The writer only changed her mind after young women began telling her they did not think they could work in comics as only men worked in the industry. “I owe it to them to show them women can do it,” said Simonson.
Randolph then asked if the women on the panel thought digital comics will be a game changer for reaching the female readership.
“I think they’re a game changer in general,” said Strain. Plugging her own web comic, The Fox Sister, Strain stated that she felt webcomics made it easier for all people to access comics.
“Anything that increases access to a book or graphic novel or comic is a good thing,” agreed Liu. “There are some people in the novel side of the industry, and the comic side, too, that say digital publishing is going to be the downfall of publishing — I feel exactly the opposite. For people who love to read, being able to access electronically is a great thing, and it increases your audience.”
O’Shea agreed, plugging Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited as another way readers can catch up on old runs of comics.
“And your colors come out way better [online]!” Strain added with a laugh.
Randolph then jumped to an entirely new set of questions, asking if panel members thought the “Cloak and Dagger” and “Mockingbird” TV shows announced as being development would lead to audiences seeing more women as superhero television and film protagonists.
“We were having this discussion the other day; it used to feel like in the ’80s, early ’90s, we saw a lot of movies coming out that had strong female leads, [and] now you’ll see female sidekicks that are not necessarily that complex or that intelligent — put models in glasses, and suddenly they’re scientists,” said Liu. Citing the story as the most important part of a film, not the protagonist’s gender, Liu continued, “It seems like the movies that do have female leads they say haven’t done that well — well, a lot of them, the stories aren’t that great. It’s not because it’s a female lead, it’s because the movies just aren’t that good.”
With a laugh, O’Shea added that she wants to eventually see a Medusa movie, professing her love for the Inhuman’s queen. Randolph then wanted to know what comics the women were currently reading.
“I quit reading comics a while back,” admitted Simonson as Randolph gasped. “I’m not ashamed, but I’m finding there are some fabulous indie comics out there. It’s actually rekindling my interest in comic books,” added Simonson.
Other books the panel members were currently engrossed in included re-reading “Runaways” on Strain’s part and “Uncanny X-Men” for Liu. O’Shea stated she was reading all of Liu’s books, and “Y: The Last Man” was Stephens’ current reading choice. The audience became palpably frustrated when Randolph cut off Liu just as she started to discuss books with Stephens further, in order to ask the women what female superheroes they would like to see leading a Marvel team or book. Rolling with the abrupt questioning, most of the panelists answered they would love to see Invisible Woman heading up a team, or Jubilee.
“I sound like a broken record, but I’d like to see Medusa!” said O’Shea.
To end the moderated part of the panel, Randolph asked where, five years from now, panel members would like to see the women in comics discussion go.
“I would like to not see this panel any more,” said Strain as Simonson shouted, “Yes!” and the audience broke out into applause. Strain then said she thought things were getting better, and that in most of the rest of the world there was not a gender gap.
“I grew up in Asia, and the spread was pretty fifty/fifty, and in Europe, I know it’s the same. I think all that stuff is going to trickle in,” added Strain.
“I would hope it would be inevitable,” agreed Liu.
“When I first got into comic books, I didn’t even notice there weren’t many women around, because they treated me like one of the guys,” said Simonson. “And then, when I did ‘Power Pack,’ I had somebody say to me it was a girls comic because June Brigman grew it, and I was like, that never occurred to me.”
“When I first started reading comics I didn’t think about it either, because I started with online fandom and there’s a lot of women,” said Liu. “I went to a comic store, and the comic book store is where I first realized there was a disparity, where the perception was that women were not in comics and it was weird for women to be in comics, because I’d go to the comic book store and the guys there would be like, ‘What are you doing here? Where’s your boyfriend?'” The audience booed at this, then laughed as Liu added, “I was like, ‘Come on, dude!'”
As for the business side of the industry, O’Shea said that 65% of the intern resumes she received were from women, though she and Stephens had to admit that what they did for Marvel did not actually have anything to do creatively with comics, nor do their jobs require any special knowledge or love of comics.
“As a side note, in law school I actually applied to Marvel’s legal department,” added Liu.
The floor then opened for questions, a tense affair as the first few were actually fans attempting to promote their own comics, a practice Randolph quickly curtailed. The first real question came from a male fan who asked the panelists, if they had the chance to bring back a female character from the Marvel Universe, who would it be?
“This is unfair, because I’m going to bring it back to ‘Runaways’ again,” laughed Strain. The audience broke into applause when Liu told the crowd that she would love to write Jubilee. Simonson said she wanted to revisit Power Pack, while Stephens said she wanted to see Kelly Sue DeConnick revisit Sif.
A female audience member wanted to know if the panel members felt Marvel was more likely to put a woman as the protagonist of a smaller book because it is less of a risk to sales.
“It’s interesting — X-23 is the only female Marvel has in an ongoing, sales have been steady and I think they’re still going up,” said Liu, adding that she thought the number of women leading Marvel teams depended more on the team then any gender bias.
Returning to Liu’s talk about comic book shops, another fan wanted to know if they thought the Internet helped bring in more female readers. “For me, I got into comics because of the X-Men cartoon. I went online, and there was a huge online female presence,” said Liu, adding, “I think the Internet is a huge part of bringing women into comics.”
Of course, no panel about women in comics is complete without some mention of Women In Refrigerators. Liu laughed and said she actually played with that idea in “Black Widow.” “I actually stuck her in a refrigerator in a meat locker, and she never lost her groove,” said Liu.
Strain went on to say the original Gail Simone-authored website and blog dated itself, and part of the problem was that all superheroes’ loved ones get killed. However, as there are more male superheroes than women, the victims skew female.
“What we’d need to know is how many people we murdered, female to male ratio,” added Simonson as the audience laughed.
A fan in a homemade Pepper Potts Rescue armor t-shirt asked why the Marvel website lacked any good women’s t-shirts, saying that the only shirts available for women were incredibly condescending, often pink or emblazoned with sentiments such as, “My boyfriend is a superhero.” The female audience broke into thunderous applause at this, then became audibly frustrated and angry again as Randolph jumped on the questioner, telling her Marvel licenses their characters but they don’t actually make the clothing and the fan should start her own clothing booth.
Cutting the Q&A session short, Randolph motioned to the final audience member, dressed like Black Widow, to ask her question. The fan ended the panel by asking who the Marvel character was that the panelists each most identified with, male or female. Strain said she would be either Jubilee or Molly from “Runaways” while Liu said she identified with Jubilee. Stephens pointed to her pink, orange and blonde dyed hair and said people often compared her to Delirium from “Sandman,” but she also liked Pixie.
“Medusa?” O’Shea joked before saying that she loved Garth Ennis’ Punisher as well. Simonson then concluded the panel on a high note with her one word answer.
“Phoenix!” Simonson said as the audience cheered one last time.