Comics for Girls: Spandex Not Required

The other day I performed some impromptu market research at my local comic book store. I approached a young man leaning against the counter, who, despite his scruffy-looking appearance, was not a nerf herder -- he was an employee. "How many girls come into this store?" I asked, sliding my weekly stash across the surface of the counter.

"Five years ago?" he replied without missing a beat. "One in ten, if that. Now? Probably three in ten."

A highly unscientific way of gathering data, but his response was interesting. More tangible are the facts coming from a number of online sources that support his guesstimate: on October 18, comiXology reported that female readers account for 20% of the digital distributor's users, up from 5% at its launch in 2007. And recently, comic blogger Brett Schenker mined Facebook's advertising data, concluding that in August 2013, 39.66% of comic book fans were female.

So chicks dig comics, and the numbers are growing. But the comics they're choosing don't seem to be from the Big Two.

"When girls come in to buy comics," he continued, "they don't pick up Marvel or DC. They usually head right for the Image titles." He mentioned a handful of books that I list among my favorites.

Best-seller "Saga" is a story that focuses on a couple with a newborn baby. Yes, they're in space, and there are aliens and laser guns and stuff explodes, but those details are incidental. Beneath the shiny sci-fi exterior, it's Romeo and Juliet -- a boy and a girl from different worlds (literally, in their case) who fell in love.

"Rat Queens" is about a quartet of hell-raising women in a swords and sorcery tale. And the heroines -- beautifully illustrated by John 'Roc' Upchurch -- actually look like real women. He abandons the hourglass figures for more realistic proportions, giving the girls thighs and tummies... you know, girly parts. They look more like actual people than the Barbie Doll-figures who dominate the spandex clad ladies clubs of Marvel and DC.

And Matt Fraction's "Sex Criminals" has some superhero-type shenanigans going on, but the central story is a coming-of-age tale about a girl discovering her own sexuality, and finding a boyfriend who had many of the same struggles.

Comics that appeal to women aren't just doing okay in the sales department -- they're on fire. According to Diamond Comics, "Saga" was #26 overall in September (only "The Walking Dead" sells more for Image -- you know, the comic that has a top-rated TV show to boost its sales?) Newcomers "Rat Queens" and "Sex Criminals" both sold out their first print runs in a day. And Issue #1 of Image's "Pretty Deadly" (written and illustrated by women, with a female protagonist) went through a 57,000 copy initial print run before going back for seconds.

So what is Image providing for female readers that Marvel and DC aren't? I have a few theories.

It's the portrayal of realistic-looking female characters. Different body types that women see when they look in the mirror, not in Photoshopped ads from fashion magazines.

It's clothes that look like they're made from actual cloth rather than form-fitting bodysuits.

It's the smaller, more personal stories. Boy-meets-girl tales that have hints of romance, but still deliver when it comes to action and adventure.

And it's a little bit of R-rated fun. Comics that handle sexuality (and the grown-up discussions surrounding it) in a refreshingly honest way -- a way that, for the most part, can't be explored in mainstream comics. While Marvel and DC undeniably keep their primary titles at PG-13 levels, Image is never one to shy away from a nipple or the occasional F-bomb.

The comic book industry is expanding. Monthly titles, graphic novels, digital comics -- sales are on the rise across the board, and the needle is moving. And it's in no small part due to us fangirls. It seems like Image was the first to recognize this trend, and are capitalizing on it by allowing more chicks into the mix; both on the creative side of things, and as the main characters of their stories.

As the data continues to pour in and the facts become undeniable, it will be interesting to see if other companies stick to spandex and stereotypes for their female characters, or of they follow Image's lead into the future.

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