NYCC: The Women of Marvel Speak

Marvel Comics' top female talent and editors gathered at New York Comic Con for the "Women Of Marvel" panel to discuss their experiences and field questions from fans about women in the comic book industry. Moderated by Marvel Editor Jeanine Schaefer, the panel kicked off as soon as the panelists filed onstage: artist Colleen Coover ("Gingerbread Girl"), writer Kelly Sue DeConnick ("Osborn"), Editor Lauren Sankovitch ("Fantastic Four"), Editor Sana Amanat ("Ultimate Spider-Man"), artist Sara Pichelli ("Ultimate Spider-Man") artist Emma Rios ("Cloak And Dagger") and writer Marjorie Liu ("X-23").

Schaefer began by immediately opening the floor to audience questions, telling fans they wanted to use the panel to "open up the discussion." Before taking the first question, DeConnick asked who in the audience wanted to work in comic books, and then asked the women who raised their hands to stand up.

"Give these women a round of applause! Not impossible!" said DeConnick as the audience cheered for the standing women. Schaefer then turned to the first audience member at the microphone, who asked the panelists if they think there is a problem and a glass ceiling when it comes to employing women in the industry.

"I don't think there are people going, 'Oh don't give Kelly Sue that job, she's a chick! She's going to try and write it with her vagina!'" said DeConnick as the audience laughed.

On a more serious note, while DeConnick thought there was no conscious conspiracy to keep women out, she did acknowledge the troubled gender history of comic books. "I can only count two women in the last fifteen to twenty years who I would consider having made it to A-list writer status, and I have trouble finding a woman I would say reached A-list artist status, and I think that is beyond curious," said DeConnick, adding that of the two A-list writers, "both of which, more often than not, I hear get called crazy."

Coover thought part of the problem was limited comic book genres. "I think it comes out of a problem with diversity in the genre -- I feel that right now there is a little too much homogeny in the genre of superheroes," said Coover, adding that she believed if the mainstream comic book publishers diversified their titles more, more women would be interested in writing and reading comics. Liu, however, disagreed.

"I feel that there are enough women I know who are so obsessed with superheroes and sort of the characters Marvel has and DC [has], that the barrier wasn't the genre but more of just this sense of it is a boy's club, and not knowing how to get that foot in the door," said Liu.

"It's intimidating to walk into a big group of guys who all talk the same and talk in a language you might not understand initially. But then you're like, 'Dude I fucking love Rogue!'" laughed Amanat.

Schafer then pointed that Marvel Editor Ellie Pyle was in the audience and brought her onstage to join the panel. A female audience member then asked if the panelists came up against discrimination for pitching stories that were too "feminine" for male tastes.

"I know when I work with the editors at Marvel, be they men or women, we're working to get the job done," said Coover. While most panelists agreed this was not something they faced at this point in their daily lives, it impacted many of them when they first were trying to break in.

"At the very beginning of my career, when I was younger, the very first compliment I got from a comic writer was, 'She's good, she draws like a male,'" Pichelli told the audience. "I never thought being a woman was a big deal; maybe men have this problem, I don't know."

"Early on I was brought a lot of female characters because they thought, 'You're a lady, you can write this lady!'" agreed DeConnick. "But then Steve Waacker came to us for 'Osborn,' and that's not a 'girly' book! Doing guys in prison? Yes!" laughed DeConnick.

DeConnick, who is married to "Fear Itself" writer Matt Fraction, then added, "I run into more difficulty that I am married to another name in the industry who is sort of the prettier girl at the dance, between the two of us. That is more of an issue in individual pitches than gender."

The next audience member to the microphone pointed out that in the last year there was a lot of discussion about women in comics, and wanted to know how the panelists thought the discussions will impact the industry.

"I hope the conversations filter out to the bean counters and the people who decide what's what," said Coover. "How quickly that will happen, I don't know.

"Things don't change until something makes a lot of money," Liu added, explaining that she thought the only way the industry would open up to more women is if something that "favored" women made a lot of money. "Until that happens, I don't know, maybe business as usual."

Another audience member wanted to know what title first got the panelists interested in working in comics.

"I had a sister six years older than me who had a stack of comics when I was born, so I've been reading them basically since I got out," laughed Coover. DeConnick said she was an army brat and got into comics as a kid living on G.I. bases around the world, while Sankovitch chalked up her interest in storytelling to her playing with Legos as a child.

"I'd sit in the basement for hours and my mom thought I was dead because I literally wouldn't say anything, because I was creating stories," laughed Sankovitch. She added that watching the "X-Men" animated series as well as "Voltron" and "Batman: The Animated Series" cemented her interest in superheroes.

Schaefer then asked the audience who became interested in comics after the "X-Men" TV show in the '90s and roughly half the audience, male and female, raised their hands.

"I used to wake up every morning and run downstairs, it was the most exciting moment of my day," said Amanat, citing the show as how she also got into comic books. Pichelli, however, said her interest in genre storytelling came from watching hours of "Sailor Moon" and anime, and that she became interested in comic books at age 28 after friends gave her some issues. Rios grew up reading comic books while Liu became interested in the medium when she began visiting the comic book store after watching the "X-Men" cartoon. Pyle agreed with most of the other panelists that the "X-Men" animated series was her gateway into comic books, prompting her to buy her first comic after she saw the cover of "X-Men" #24 with Gambit and Rogue almost kissing.

"Because I had been watching the cartoon I knew that this was really important!" said Pyle as the audience laughed.

The next audience member asked for tips for her own nieces on how to smash through the glass ceiling in comics.

"When I'm talking about the glass ceiling, I'm talking about top-tier talent," said DeConnick, explaining that she felt she still hadn't broken through, again citing that there are only two women in the industry currently who had actually accomplished that. As for tips, DeConnick said the key was hard work.

"Our industry will never be unionized because there will always be somebody who will do your job for free, so you have to be better, so much better, that they are willing to pay you a job that someone else would do for free," said DeConnick.

Coover emphasized working on individual projects and practicing writing or drawing as important for those who want to be writers or artists while Pyle said the most important quality for those who want to be editors was learning how to "be a good audience for stories, learn how to consume a story."

Amanat also cited mentorship as a big reason she was able to break into comics. "[My mentor] told me, 'You're fucking talented, you believe it, you have every right to be here just like every other guy.' And I had dealt with some pretty bad experiences with males in the industry who didn't want me there," Amanat said. "The industry does want women there; they are, I think, a little bit intimidated by female creators, and female creators are also intimidated, so there's this little cold war where no one is approaching each other."

An audience member who worked as an art historian asked the panelists about their views on the objectification of women in comics, especially since many Marvel titles are guilty of this objectification including books the women themselves had worked on.

"I'm doing the math whether I'm about to have a career after I answer this question or not," DeConnick said as the audience laughed. DeConnick and the other panelists admitted, as working professionals in the industry, their hands are somewhat tied when it comes to truthfully answering the question.

"This is another thing that is a little bit difficult; I think women in comics panels are important and interesting and I think that they should be populated by academics and decision makers who can speak feely about these things, because I am not on contract and I have two children and I would like to make a paycheck," said DeConnick.

The women on the panel all nodded in agreement as DeConnick added, "The argument is that men are sexualized [too], but yeah, look, they're all buff! Dudes, that's for you, that's not for us." Speaking about an incident where pages of one of her issues came back with an intensely sexualized pose, DeConnick said she put a word balloon over the character's butt to try and minimize the objectification.

"I like sex, my favorite comic book is 'Casanova!' I'm not saying that it's not a fun thing to look at people who are sexually attractive, that's awesome, but what we decide is sexually attractive is a thing to think about," DeConnick said.

Coover said she thought a lot of it came from artists taking the easiest route to finish their art when deadlines are looming, while Amanat stated that on the editorial side the problem was that objectification still sells.

"I think, to be completely real with you guys, we all know the situation in comics, people aren't buying as much as they used to. The reality is, the market is used to certain things, they want their characters a particular way. If they don't, they get really angry," said Amanat. "It starts with us but it also starts with the buyers."

"I really liked Amanda Waller when she was [skinny]," added DeConnick. "It's going to fall on deaf ears as long as the market is the most important thing."

Entering into a lightning round of questions, a female fan asked if the editors were able to combat objectification and violence towards women or if they were powerless to stop it.

Sankovitch said the most important thing in editorial was serving the story, and that "there is a certain amount of violence that comes with that genre of books." With that in mind, Sankovitch added, "If we do come across something that we don't feel comfortable publishing, we can say,'Let's rethink this.'"

The next audience member asked whether web comics were impacting the mainstream comic book industry. Coover said she thought the web was especially good for giving women a place to create their own comics and added it was likely where the industry's new talent will spring from. Liu, however, thought it was too soon to tell if it would make a big impact on Marvel, DC or the other comics publishers.

The very last female fan to the microphone asked if the panelists felt they had to be tomboys or play up being one of the guys in order to work in comics, to which the panelists said no and ended the panel amidst cheers and applause.

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