Comics publishers often think they know what girls like, but once we get out of Disney Princess territory, it’s harder than it looks. DC had a good try with their Minx line, but they made a lot of missteps; they totally ignored the popularity of manga and produced a first round of books that were like the graphic novel equivalents of Afterschool Specials. They got better, but by then it was too late. It’s very, very hard to connect with teenagers.
Rather than sit in a air-conditioned office and think about it, creator Hope Larson (Chiggers, Mercury) did something original: She asked the girls what they like—actually, she polled 198 women who reported having read comics in their teens and tweens.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the way online discussions usually go on this topic, superheroes emerged as the favorite genre, although manga was a close second (yes, I know manga is a medium not a genre, but I didn’t write the survey). X-Men was the most popular series, followed by Sandman, Batman, Rumiko Takahashi’s manga (Ranma ½, Inu Yasha), Spiderman, Sailor Moon, and comics by Alan Moore and CLAMP. And this:
The thing that drew most respondents to their favorite comics was the characters: Either relatable, realistic characters (like the misfit X-Men) or “kick-ass” wish-fulfillment characters.
A compelling story and strong artwork were of nearly equal importance to teen readers, with the story being slightly more important.
Many also craved dark or “adult” subject matter.
This particular group has a definite skew toward the traditional comics genres and models—over half get their comics at comics store, a quarter had been to a Free Comic Book Day event, and superheroes are a big part of their world. At the same time, they expressed some discontent with the way things are: They want “more and better female protagonists,” including “strong, in-control, kick-ass women calling the shots”; they don’t want anything pink or sparkly; they don’t care for hypersexualized characters or plots that rely on sexual violence; and they want to see good stories in a variety of genres, with male and female protagonists. Also, many feel uncomfortable in comics shops, for all the usual reasons. They want to see comics made available in more places and they would like publishers to reach out to girls.
It’s worth reading the whole post not just to get all the details but also to see the readers’ comments and reactions to Larson’s findings.
Back in headier times (2007), I wrote a blog post about the expansion of the comics market in which I noted that graphic novel sales had quadrupled since 2001. Here’s Milton Greipp’s explanation for that:
I think the biggest factor was Tokyopop’s expansion of their authentic manga line and bringing in original material for girls. Suddenly there was huge growth in a business that was usually flat, and it opened up new opportunities for other categories as well.
Graphic novels were booming at the time, and now they are slumping a bit, but the lesson remains: You grow your audience by broadening the appeal of your offerings. That may mean toning down the misogyny (perceived or otherwise) of traditional superhero comics or offering different types of stories and storytelling in order to attract more readers. It may mean putting graphic novels in different sections of the bookstore, rather than grouping them together, or even putting them in Costco or Target. It should definitely mean giving female creators like Larson a bigger voice (her books rock anyway). Manga sales may be slipping at the moment, but the fact remains that girls and women make up half the world (slightly more, actually), so reaching out to them can mean bigger sales and a greater variety of books—and not doing so is shortsighted and foolish.