DC Comics has aimed directly at young female fans with the DC Super Hero Girls initiative, which made its convention debut this past weekend at New York Comic Con. Six months after the campaign was first announced, the first animated shorts have arrived online and a capacity crowd showed up for Thursday's DC Super Hero Girls panel, which featured Aria Moffly, Creative Director of Development at DC Entertainment; Tania Missad, Consumer Insights Director at Mattel; Christine Kim, Design Lead at Mattel for DC Super Hero Girls; Shea Fontana, writer of the DC Super Hero Girls animated shorts and upcoming graphic novel; Lisa Yee, author of the DC Super Hero Girls middle-reader books; and Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Cheetah on the "DC Super Hero Girls" animated shorts.
"It's been years in the making," Moffly told the panel audience. "It was an effort on behalf of a lot of collaborators: Mattel, DC, LEGO, Random House -- Diane Nelson, our president, has been a champion for this from the beginning."
Beyond the shorts already released, the DC Super Hero Girls line will unfold over the next year, including comics, a TV special, novels, toys, dolls and apparel. It encompasses teenage versions of the big-name DC superheroes you'd expect on a project like this (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl), villains -- or at least, characters typically defined as such (Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Katana, Cheetah) and some less expected choices, like Bumblebee, a character typically associated with the Teen Titans.
There are male characters, too -- Super Hero High, where the stories take place, is co-ed and includes students such as Beast Boy, and Superman and Batman are both alums. And the cast may not stop there.
"We have the most diverse, dynamic and powerful superheroes on the planet," Moffly said. "We really wanted a diverse roster. Once we've kind of serviced each and let each one shine, we'll start to add more characters. There were a lot designed, so hopefully we'll get a chance to get to all of them in the future."
As far as characters like Cheetah, though she may be widely known as an unsavory nemesis to Wonder Woman, in the DC Super Hero Girls world, she's a bit less threatening.
"There's no real 'villains,' Eckstein said. "There's no real 'bad girl, mean girl.' There's always a lesson that's learned at the end."
"That's what I love about this show -- it may appear that she's the mean girl, but at the end of the day, there's always lessons learned, and the girls really do get along," the voice actor behind roles such as Ahsoka Tano in "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" and "Star Wars: Rebels" continued. "It's fun to see them interact -- even Cheetah. There was one scene we did where she was trying to hard not to like it and get involved, and at the end of the day, she just jumped in with the rest of the girls. It really is empowering with girls' relationships, which is something we don't always see. We see where girls are pitted against each other, and that's not the case here."
On the merchandise side, Missad discussed her extensive research with the targeted demographic of girls age 6 to 12 to fine-tune exactly what DC Super Hero Girls was going to look like.
"We first and foremost, talked to a lot of girls," Missad said. "We wanted to find out from girls what they wanted out of superheroes. About 90 percent of them said there weren't enough superheroes for girls. They really wanted Super Hero Girls to be strong, they wanted them in practical outfits. They told us what not to do. They didn't want dolls or action figures that had heels. They didn't want any sort of accessories that would get in the way of fighting villains. They were really specific -- they had to be ready to fight, and be fierce and strong, and powerful girls. We were really inspired by that."
"Taking all that information, we're processing it when we make the dolls, to make sure that we're conveying their superpowers, that they look functional and relatable to girls age 6-plus," Kim added. "Keeping true to their colors, their DNA."
"Girls really just want role models to look up to," Missad commented.
From the storytelling perspective, both Fontana and Yee made it clear to the crowd that they saw potential for the property behind simple merchandise tie-ins -- and there's something in it for more traditional comic book fans, too.
"From a story perspective, we're interested in telling compelling, character-driven, human stories," Fontana said. "There's a lot in the animation and graphic novels that are going to be little Easter eggs for some of our really big comics fans."
"These girls, they're in high school, with all the angst -- and they have superpowers," Yee said." But they don't have their full superpowers yet. And they don't know if they're going to be superheroes or supervillains, or what's going to happen. We might know, but they don't know. I get to write about the events that are happening, and things that are happening in their lives that are going to shape who they are going to be."
As a voice actor who joined during the casting process for the animated shorts, Eckstein wasn't involved in the conception of DC Super Hero Girls -- but she feels a strong connection to the product, as the founder of "fangirl" merchandise company and community Her Universe, and a vocal advocate for female representation in genre-centric circles.
"I have seen so much change," Eckstein told the NYCC audience. "Her Universe launched in 2010, and at that time, literally to get a t-shirt made for girls in this arena was near to impossible. I was told back then, 'Female fans don't buy merchandise made for them.' I just can't believe that, when half of the fans are women. We have to go straight to the fans and let them know, 'OK, now we're paying attention to you.' Truly something magical has happened over the last five years, and people are listening."
"It's so amazing that this show is happening," Eckstein said. "Your voice has been making a difference, so keep it up."
The first two DC Super Hero Girls shorts, "All About Super Hero High" and "Roomies" are now available to watch online. Mattel's toy line is slated to launch in spring 2016, with the first "DC Super Hero Girls" prose novel scheduled for March 2016 and graphic novel slated for June 2016.