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Women and superheroes: We’re just not that into you?

by  in Comic News Comment

The latest round of conversation about women in comics was sparked by Adam P. Knave’s piece bemoaning the lack of women creators in the comics field (which he defines as monthly comics, obviously dominated by superheroes). Adam believes the root cause is that superhero comics have made themselves unattractive to women by portraying women solely as sex objects or targets of abuse. This led Heidi MacDonald to point out that there are plenty of women in the rest of comics, just not at DC and Marvel. And they are doing quite well, too.

Danielle Corsetto, for example. The Girls with Slingshots creator was interviewed by Carl Watkins of Guerilla Geek, and he asked her if she thought it was easier for women to break into webcomics than “traditional” comics. Her answer is revealing:

Yes, although I think it has more to do with the genre than the medium. Most comic books are aimed at boys, are serious, and have a focus on superpowers. Most popular webcomics are character-driven and have to do with the characters’ lifestyles, or observations about science or philosophy, and almost all of them could be clumped into the broad category of “humor.” While I know plenty of women who genuinely love to read about superheroes, I think that, generally, most women prefer to read (and write) about how characters interact with one another, and not how they’re gonna pulverize each other.

So perhaps it’s not just the terrible portrayals of women but also the type of story that’s being told? Saying “women like this, men like that” is a sure way to get yourself called an idiot on the Internet, and certainly there are plenty of women superhero fans, but I can see her point. There’s a coldness to superhero comics that I find off-putting, and they often bore me in the same way battle-action manga do. That sounds like a value judgment, but it isn’t: The people who read Twilight and Vampire Knight are mostly female, so it cuts both ways.

On the other hand, perhaps if more women were writing superhero comics, there would be more superhero comics that women would want to read.

In her latest column at comiXology, Shaenon Garrity has two suggestions for getting more women into the field: Start interviewing women for jobs (she invokes something called the Rooney Rule here) and hire editors — just one editor, really — who will encourage women. Her exhibit A is shoujo manga, and it’s an example that American comics publishers would do well to study:

You know why, over in Japan, there are so many women drawing manga? Because in the 1970s, an editor named Junya Yamamoto decided that his girls’ manga might sell better if they were drawn by young women rather than middle-aged men, so he hired a bunch of young female artists. Okay, that wasn’t the only reason women took over shojo manga. The other reason was that these women were all totally awesome at drawing manga. But if Yamamoto hadn’t been there to scoop up their work, they probably would have drawn less, or focused on the small-press world rather than the big publishers, or given up on comics. Instead, the manga industry got amazing artists like Moto Hagio, Keiko Takemiya, Riyoko Ikeda, and Yasuko Aoike.

Those artists revolutionized the field. Suppose the big publishers were to hire women who write and draw superhero comics that, while true to the genre, have more female appeal: More conversations, less punching, fewer dead-eyed females and brokeback poses. Throw in more accessible art and less complicated continuity (something like Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier), and you could still make some nice solid comics that would appeal to readers like Danielle. Going back to Japan for a minute, a substantial portion of the readers of shonen manga are female, and I think that’s because shonen manga is usually more than just battles — they also flesh out their characters with relationships and personalities. The publishers know this, and they have tweaked the books a bit to make them more attractive to girls.

Why would American publishers do this? To avoid leaving money on the table. As Heidi ably pointed out, there are lots of women making comics, and they are doing pretty well (the top-selling graphic novels last year were The Dork Diaries and Twilight, both by women). Comics sales surged in the early 2000s because someone (manga publishers) finally started making comics for girls, and the girls loved them.

Recently a bunch of women creators, many of them already successful, have been drawing their own powerful female superheroes (check out Carly Monardo’s Tumblr for a good selection, and here’s Kate Beaton’s take, which has already been linked all over the Internet, including here). Like all important movements, they have their own Twitter hashtag. But these are standalone drawings and fanart, not complete stories, and they are really just critiquing one aspect of superhero comics. Developing a full suite of characters, a universe, and a story takes time, and without publishers making an investment, it’s not likely to happen. Marketing to customers who have been turned off by the product in a big way is also a challenge, as Adam points out. But the customers are out there, and the creators are working hard to satisfy them; the question isn’t whether women will make and read comics any more, it’s whether the Big Two will be left behind.

(Image source: Comicbookbrain.com)