Comics creator, writer, and artist Hope Larson (Mercury, Gray Horses, Chiggers, Salamader Dream) recently conducted a survey called Girls & Comics on her livejournal for girls and women that read comics. The results were interesting, and if you read this column and other female positive or female focused comics columns throughout the web, not that surprising. In the wake of reading her results, I asked Hope if she'd be willing to stop by She Has No Head! to answer some questions about her survey and the feedback she received. She graciously accepted.
Though I'm posting an excerpt of some of the relevant information to our interview here, I highly suggest reading the entire survey results yourself at the link.
KELLY THOMPSON: So you did this great survey of girls and women that read comics that was geared toward finding out what they read and why and some of the specifics surrounding those things, like where they get their comics physically and what other motivators (people/mediums etc.), have brought them to it. What prompted you to do this?
HOPE LARSON: When I started drawing comics in 2003, I wasn't concerned with who my audience was. It was exciting that anyone was interested in my work, and I figured if I was creating work good enough to publish, then I'd fulfilled my obligations as an author. I also believed that good work was honest work, and that one could not create honest work if one wrote with an audience in mind. Because that would be (gasp!) selling out.
Then I wrote Chiggers, which is a fairly straightforward summer camp story, and believe it or not, I wrote that story for myself. When I sold it to Atheneum I was honestly surprised to hear that I'd written a middle-grade book. It was a thunderbolt moment: This was a story that was for me and also for middle schoolers. I naturally gravitate to stories about young adults, so it's not a conflict of interest if I consider my work to be for them. I have had to make small compromises as a young-adult author–a curse word here, a panel of nudity there–but never anything that compromised the story I wanted to tell.
So, okay, I am a young adult author, and naturally I'm concerned about getting my books into the hands of actual young adults, but I don't think I'm reaching them as effectively as I could. I do the odd bookstore event and I regularly exhibit at comic conventions, but most of my fans are men and women in their 20s and 30s; I almost never see teenaged girls. (As for boys, I've seen many a teenaged boy wrinkle his noses at my work, and well... I'm not getting my hopes up.)
I put the survey together to find out where girls are getting their comics, so I can be there selling my comics to them. That probably seems like a cold and money-hungry reason – it's never pleasant to mix art and commerce – but I'm a full-time cartoonist, I love my job, and I want to keep it. On top of that, I'm currently planning a graphic novel series. A series is a big financial risk for a book publisher, and I'm terrified I'll get the axe after one or two volumes due to poor sales; so the more I know about how to market it to girls, the greater my chances of keeping it alive.
KELLY THOMPSON: I don't want to get too much into my own stuff here, but your story about publishing Chiggers, reminds me of what has happened to me with my novel which is that I thought I was writing a book for adults (i.e. for me), only to find out from agents and publishers that what I wrote was young adult. And it needed A LOT of tweaking to make it fit solidly in that category, so I think knowing your market and writing something you love with your audience in mind, just makes you really savvy and smart - not a sell out.
With the audience in mind...have you considered a school (grade school/middle school/jr. high/high school whatever) author's tour of sorts. I know a lot of popular well-selling YA authors of prose do this and it seems to have really good results as far as reaching the ACTUAL audience
[caption id="attachment_51024" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Raina Telgemeier's Smile"]
and creating word of mouth amongst that audience...I wonder if there is some way to get publishers to fund a sort of book tour for a group of YA graphic writers/artists, the way they do for prose. I know this sounds both revolutionary and possibly crazy naive...but it seems like a pretty natural fit to me, no? Even better, maybe publishers could get a few of you together, make it more of an event...you and Raina Telgemeier perhaps, a few others (male or female) with similar youth oriented material?
HOPE LARSON: Funny you should mention a tour. Raina and Tracy White and I did have a joint tour planned for earlier this year. My book was originally supposed to come out on January 6th, and Smile was coming out in February, and we figured, "This is a no-brainer!"
We were so wrong. My book is YA, Raina's book is middle-grade, and Tracy's book is edgy YA, so the tour was a huge faux pas on our parts. Our publishers were not happy. Then Atheneum moved the release date of Mercury to April, and we had the call the whole thing off anyway. The book industry is a complicated animal and the tour debacle was a reminder of how much I still have to learn.
I agree that I should do school events, but I have pretty intense stage fright. I haven't been able to convince myself that the amount of work time I'd lose to preparation, stress and travel would be worth the payoff.
KELLY THOMPSON: I have to say, I felt that in reading the survey results - especially in your list of "10 Things Authors, Publishers, and Retailers Can Do Better" - that I could have written the results myself they were so on point with what I've been seeing and hearing in the industry over the past few years - were the results what you expected?
HOPE LARSON: For the most part, yes, and most of the women I've spoken to said the same.
KELLY THOMPSON: What was a surprise?
HOPE LARSON: The hate for comics targeted at girls surprised me a little bit. Dozens of women specifically used the words "pink" and "sparkly" as things they avoid, and I chalk some of that up to our cultural perception that girly = crap. I'm extremely curious to read these pink, sparkly comics for myself, but no one mentioned which books, specifically, they hated – aside from Girl Comics, which I hate to mention because I've met the (delightful) editor and know so many of the creators involved.
The real problem is when readers feel that publishers are telling them what sorts of story they, as girls, "should" want to read. "You'll never be a real fan, sweetheart, but look! We made this comic just for you." Lots of girls are going to want the pink book encrusted with hearts and ribbons, but lots of other girls would prefer to see someone's entrails ripped out. There's no one-size-fits-all girl book. Girls like what they like because that's what they like, not because they're girls.
KELLY THOMPSON: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head with the "publishers are telling them what sorts of story they, as girls, should want to read". I've come across a lot of this attitude - especially regarding superheroes - and have literally been told, and I quote: "Superheros are male power fantasies. Period. End of story." Which is wrong on numerous levels. Nobody wants to be told what they like and don't like...and it's particularly aggravating when a publisher or writer or artist (especially if they also happen to be male) goes "well, girls all like shopping, and boys, and pink,
[caption id="attachment_51026" align="alignleft" width="250" caption="Marvel's Girl Comics #1"]
and pretty things, and ponies, and sex and the city, and going out for 'drinks with the girls' - so let's take all those cliché elements and throw them in a blender and we'll have a surefire "GIRL" hit!" I would cite Marvel Divas as a perfect example of why that doesn't work (especially if you then slap an objectifying cover on it).
I understand why girls and women would have a bad reaction to Girl Comics - the name alone is a huge problem - and I talked about GC in depth with editor Mariah Huehner here before, but I don't see Girl Comics as something nearly as "off" as something like Marvel Divas. Because GC, while ostensibly something girls might like, I think was more about spotlighting female creators, but I understand why girls might feel that way about it.
HOPE LARSON: Most people who complained about Girl Comics mentioned that they were turned off specifically by the title. Personally, I haven't read the book. Based on what I know about it I don't have a problem with it, and I would read it if it was handed to me, but I'd rather not read it at all than have to go back to my LCS–which is a rant for another day. On a related note, comics still have an image problem. It's better than it used to be, but it's still around. For example, in one of the surveys I got back, a girl – I think she's still in her late teens or early 20s – mentioned that comics were perceived as extremely uncool at her high school. She was relatively popular, and she wouldn't have been comfortable reading comics in public. And this is in spite of the fact that she was drawing her own web comic at the time! Hopefully highly visible adaptations like the Twilight Manga will help dispel the stench of nerd a little bit.
KELLY THOMPSON: I'm not trying to be all "I’m so right!" but literally #1, and #3 through #10 on that list (and I'm working on a post about #2) are all things I've talked about in this column - and seen many others talk about - so if columnists, critics, fans, and a survey of about 200 women and girls that read comics are all saying similar things - why do big mainstream comic companies act like trying to address getting girls to read mainstream books is like unknowable rocket science? Any ideas? Because I'm fresh out!
HOPE LARSON: I have no idea! This isn't even an issue in small press or book publishing, where I've worked. I would guess that part of the problem is there aren't many female superheroes popular enough to carry a book and make the sort of sales mainstream comic publishers expect.
KELLY THOMPSON: Well I would argue that there are plenty of female superheroes that COULD be big enough to carry books if the books (and characters) were handled well and not immediately off-putting to girls...but THAT is a rant for another day.
One of my personal hopes for the future of getting girls into comic stores in bigger numbers (and I've absolutely seen it manifesting already) is the 'Dad Factor' - so many male comics lovers have grown up and had daughters (and sons) and it's not only made them better more discerning readers in my opinion, but it seems like the best and most reliable way to bring girls into the comics fold in a safe and encouraging way - so I was really excited to see that reflected in the survey results. Have you had any direct experience with that?
HOPE LARSON: My dad wasn't a comics fan, so sadly I didn't get to experience the Dad Factor myself, but I've seen it in action! I know a couple of guys who have shared comics with their daughters, and I meet a fair amount of parents at indie shows who are shopping for their kids, who usually aren't in tow. Often I meet dads who are working to build libraries of comics that their kids will age into; I hear a lot of, "She's three now, but I'm sure she'll love this in five to nine years!"
KELLY THOMPSON: My dad wasn't either, I was one of those "came to comics through the X-Men cartoon" people. Although, in retrospect this isn't actually true, because while the X-men cartoon was definitely my catalyst to fully jumping into comics and and going to my LCS and all of that, I loved and always begged my mother for Archie's as a kid...EVERY time we went through the grocery check out. How did you get into comics?
HOPE LARSON: I had a funny route in. My dad is a professor, and when I was 7 he went on sabbatical and moved the family to France for a year. I knew zero French at the time (about as much as I know now!), so I ended up reading a lot of comics. I'd never read comics before, not even Archie, but they're all over the place in Europe. I read Tintin and Astérix BD I bought in bookstores, and My Little Pony and Glo-Worms comics (yes, really) from the newsstand, and massive newsprint Uncle Scrooge reprints I bought in train stations. I loved all of it. I think I still have those My Little Pony comics, too.
When we came back to the US I had no idea where to find the kinds of comics I was used to reading. I went to a LCS occasionally and bought Magic cards, but the superhero stuff freaked me out. In middle school I started reading Elfquest collections, and then in high school I got into the Ranma 1/2 and Nausicäa Manga and various Anime. In college I read Sandman and Dan Clowes and Chris Ware. Now I read mostly Manga, graphic novels released through book publishers, and small-press stuff I pick up at conventions.
KELLY THOMPSON: So what was your biggest take away from this experiment?
HOPE LARSON: 1: I'm on the right track. Keep pluggin' along, Hope.
2: My approach to marketing has got to be like an octopus. One arm in the Manga community, one arm in indie comics, one arm in mainstream comics, one arm in the bookstore market, one arm online... There's no one easy way to reach girls, so I have to think across genres and across markets.
KELLY THOMPSON: I would say you're probably right about your octopus approach and that's exactly what the big two should be trying...with modification of course. Has anyone approached you about expanding your survey in a more academic way as you discussed?
HOPE LARSON: My agent and I are working on this now!
KELLY THOMPSON: Will you personally do anything differently - in your comics, or marketing, or con attendance etc. - based on the results you got?
HOPE LARSON: As a writer, no, although the survey suggests I'm moving in a worthwhile direction. The last script I wrote, which I'm close to placing with a publisher, is a magical girl story very much in the vein of Sailor Moon, but with a more capable, driven heroine who doesn't need a prince to sweep in and save her. It also has dual male and female protagonists, action, fantasy, and a pinch of high school drama. It almost sounds like I went through the survey and said, "Okay, I'm going to have elements X, Y and Z because that's what girls want."
In terms of marketing, I was already planning to exhibit at a couple of Anime conventions next year. We'll see how that goes!
KELLY THOMPSON: What is the biggest thing you personally would recommend a company like one of the big two do to respond to a survey like this if they were actually interested in implementing change?
HOPE LARSON: I'm a bad person to ask about this because I don't and never have read superhero comics. However, these are some changes I'd investigate if I was queen of Marvel or DC:
1) Tone down the sexy on some of the covers. A big part of why I never got into capes is that the covers embarrassed me so much that I didn't want to pick up a superhero comic, much less look inside. When I was 11 or 12 and shopping in comic stores for the first time I would head straight for the stuff I knew was "safe"–Elfquest collections and Ranma 1/2–and try not to see anything else that was on display. I've been in sex shops where I felt more comfortable than I do in your average comic shop, even at age 27.
2) Don't give up so quickly on initiatives like Minx. I told friends in the publishing industry how quickly Minx got the axe, and they were shocked. It never really had a chance.
3) Advertise, advertise, advertise. Put ads for girl-friendly comics into popular books. Reach out to those dads (and moms!) who are looking for comics their daughters will like.
4) Look to Archie. Girls still read Archie because it's accessible, and because their parents probably read Archie when they were growing up, too. How do you get girls to go from Archie to other sorts of comics? Make those comics just as easy to find! Get them into newsstands and grocery stores. Kids don't have cars or credit cards.
5) Think outside the industry. Approach writers like Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) and Diablo Cody, who are already writing girl-friendly, comics-appropriate material, and see if they're interested in writing a miniseries starring their favorite superhero.
KELLY THOMPSON: Well, regardless of your experience with superhero comics, I think you nailed this answer. I agree wholeheartedly with all of your answers. But I think #4 and this: "Make those comics just as easy to find [as Archie]! Get them into newsstands and grocery stores. Kids don't have cars or credit cards." Is so insightful and something I rarely hear mentioned with such specificity. Especially with girls a lot of this is access. Because comics are not more readily available is I think why it takes a herculean force (a Dad/Uncle/Brother giving comics, other media introducing us to it, etc.) to bring girls to comics. Boys somehow end up there naturally in higher numbers and then the product and stores caters to them - but girls, like my situation, can go years and years, just seeing Archie in the grocery story and not knowing there's more and different stuff out there. I think sadly that's still very true today.
It's one of the reasons that getting more graphic novels into bookstores in large numbers and with great variety is so important...because the stat is that girls and women read something like 80% of the fiction...so girls ARE in the bookstore, even if they don't know where the comic book store is.
With that in mind (bookstores) do you think graphic novels should continue to have their own section in bookstores...or that they should be shelved according to type "adult fiction graphic novels go with adult fiction prose"...books like Fun Home go with other prose memoirs and your book Mercury goes in the YA prose section? Or do you think they're better off in some ways and easier to find if grouped together via the medium and not the specific category?
HOPE LARSON: Everyone has a pet theory about what needs to happen in bookstores, organizationally. What I'd like to see is comics racked in sections divided by age group: adult comics, young adult comics, middle grade comics, and so on.
For this sort of system to work, though, comics publishers would need to start thinking like book publishers in terms of who their books are for. I've been railing about this a lot lately, but to a bookseller, all-ages is not a thing. If you tell a bookseller, "Oh, but this is a book anyone could enjoy!", she will laugh at you, and yes, that has happened to me. Booksellers need to know who they're selling your book to. If they can't figure it out, they probably aren't going to bother stocking it.
I may already have mentioned this, but Barnes & Noble and Borders don't carry my books at all–any of my books–and that's partly because they aren't sure where to shelve YA comics that aren't Manga.
KELLY THOMPSON: I’m really disappointed to hear that B&N and Borders don’t carry your books – that seems like a huge miss to me. I hope in the future that will change. In the meantime, what are you most excited about in comics right now - as a reader or creator?
HOPE LARSON: It's been incredible to see how well Raina Telgemeier's doing with her new graphic novel, Smile. She's selling out print runs, getting reviewed in the New York Times... Publishers have been cautious of signing graphic novels lately, and hopefully Smile's success will help change that.
KELLY THOMPSON: What frustrates you the most about comics right now - as a reader or creator?
HOPE LARSON: I hate the hustle. I wish I didn't have to spend so much time thinking about how to sell my books, but I've gotta sell books to make books.
KELLY THOMPSON: As I mentioned to you previously, I recently read your new book Mercury and thought it was fantastic. Do you have any great books (your own or others, upcoming or already released) that you'd like to recommend while you're here?
Raina Telgemeier's Smile. Tracy White's How I Made It to Eighteen. Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost, out next year. The Aya series from Drawn & Quarterly. For horror fans, Junji Ito's manga (Museum of Terror, Uzumaki) feature interesting female characters. And I'm sure it'll never happen, with so many Manga publishers scaling back and Manga imprints shutting down, but it's a crying shame that there isn't an English translation of gender-bending shojo classic The Rose of Versailles.
KELLY THOMPSON: So, Hope, I just want to thank you for sharing your survey with us and taking the time to sit down and answer these questions - and I hope you'll come back. Before you take off, would you mind just sharing with my readers what you're working on now - what they should keep their eyes open for? I mentioned previously your new book Mercury that was released earlier this year but what else do you have on tap?
HOPE LARSON: I'm working on so much stuff. The main thing is a graphic novel adaptation of Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which I believe will be out in 2012. It's by far the longest comic I've drawn–close to 400 pages. Then there's my magical girl comic. And I'm also refining a sci-fi screenplay I wrote last year, and writing a second screenplay set in the 1920s. I know that sounds like a lot, but each of these is in a different stage of development, so I'm not working on all of these projects all of the time! I just like to keep busy.
Thanks for having me!
You can find out more about Hope Larson and her books at her new website, her livejournal, and via twitter as well. In addition to her books Mercury, Gray Horses, Salamader Dream, and Chiggers, Larson has had short works published with a variety of publications from Flight Vol. 2 to The New York Times and is a 2007 Eisner Award winner. In 2006 Larson won both an Ignatz award for "Promising New Talent" and the Kim Yale award for "Best New Female Talent".