Women In Comics: Liu & Cloonan on Gender Gaps in Mainstream and Indie Comics

To celebrate Women's History Month, all March long Comic Book Resources is highlighting female creators across the industry, past and present, who helped make the comic book world what it is today. While we've looked back in time to the '70s, '80s and '90s, this week we look at the current era as writer Marjorie Liu and artist Becky Cloonan join us to talk about women in mainstream and indie comics.

Liu began her comics career writing for Marvel Comics' "NYX: No Way Home" before rising to prominence penning the adventures of Wolverine's son, Daken, and his clone, X-23, in the pages of "Dark Wolverine" and "X-23." She currently writes "Astonishing X-Men" which made headlines last year with a same-sex wedding featuring one of its mutant heroes. Liu is also a New York Times bestselling author who specializes in novels featuring paranormal romances.

Cloonan first gained industry-wide attention for her work on Vertigo Comics' "Demo" with writer Brian Wood, garnering two Eisner Award nominations for the series. Besides being the first woman to pencil "Batman" in 2012 she is also the artist for Gerard Way's new Dark Horse Comics series "The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys" and recently collaborated with Wood again on "Conan The Barbarian."

Looking at their careers and the characters they've helped craft, Cloonan and Liu discussed the superhero gender gap with CBR News as well as their love of Jubilee and the surprising similarities between "Conan's" Belit and X-23.

CBR News: For both of you, what made you get into comics and try to break into what is traditionally a male-dominated industry?

Becky Cloonan: I've always liked drawing and it didn't really put me off that it was a male-dominated field. But I started reading comics in the '90s and I graduated high school in the '90s and at that point comics was a smaller industry, I think, and I was daunted less by the fact that it was male-dominated but more by the fact I wasn't sure if I could make a living doing this kind of work. I actually went to school for animation and I deviated from that. But it's always something that I've been passionate about ever since I can remember.

Marjorie Liu: I didn't start reading comics until I was in college because I didn't have access to a comic book store. So it didn't really happen until I was 18. I watched the "X-Men" cartoon, which I loved, so I was familiar with the characters. But basically I wandered into a comic book store one day, picked up a few issues and was totally hooked. Like Becky it didn't bother me that it was a male-dominated industry. Sometimes the comic book store itself would be a little weird just because there weren't any girls there. In that time in that particular store in Wisconsin there weren't really other female customers, so usually it was just me and a bunch of guys. In that way I guess there was a strong male presence, but as far as the stories and the books in the industry, that's never something I thought much about and it didn't intimidate me either. But from the time I started reading them after 18 it was my fantasy to write comic books in one form or another.

When people talk about women in the industry many point to the fact there are less women working in mainstream superhero comics than there are in indie comics, which is seen as more even. Do you two feel that's true? Are there more women working on indie books rather than superhero comics, or is that a misconception?

Liu: I don't feel like it's a misconception that there are fewer women working in action superhero comics. I mean if you look at the numbers of women actually writing and drawing at the Big Two, we're lucky if out of 52 books at DC we get maybe three women. The numbers are slightly better at Marvel but that's still not many women participating in creating them. I don't think the numbers lie, I think there is an imbalance.

In the media landscape today we've clearly seen women flocking to read stories with fantasy and science fiction elements featuring characters that essentially have superpowers. So why is there this gender gap between interest in genre fiction and interest in mainstream superheroes comics?

Liu: I'm not sure. I know that there's way more women reading and being involved in superhero comics than there used to be and that is going up. It's been kind of an exponential growth, so I like to think that exponentially if we keep seeing that happen more women will start getting into superhero comics, even if they get in through things like "The Avengers" movie, which, yeah, I love it. But if we see more people getting involved that could translate into more women writing and drawing comics in the next five to ten years. It's impossible to deny there is a disparity in the genders, but I think it's something that time is going to change. Right now when you go to a comics convention, if you go to San Diego or New York Comic Con there's definitely 50/50 of people attending events. There's such diversity in gender, ethnicity, and I think that will start affecting creators. It already does, but I think even more so, and that can only mean good things for the industry.

Cloonan: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right! When you go to San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic Con and the other conventions it is like 50/50 and I think that is changing things. In five to ten years we're going to see way more involvement with women in this industry. When I look at my Tumblr feed its all Loki fan-art from girls, it's amazing, they all love the new "Avengers." There are books out there that are definitely starting to appeal more to girls. It might be a new thing too where DC and Marvel are realizing, "Well wait, there's this huge readership here we're not courting properly."

Liu: I know when I was first becoming a huge X-Men nerd my tribe was all on the Internet. All the fans, all the fan sites, all the fan fiction was written by women. This is back in the mid-'90s, all the way to, I hate to say the last decade I'm feeling so old! [Laughter] But it was intense! It was an intense, growing fandom and it was all female. That was sort of what kept the fire going. I don't feel like I've seen that reflected, especially when I first started, in conversations at Marvel. But I think the female presence is there and it's strong and it's hungry. Especially now it's impossible to ignore.

Cloonan: Yeah!

Do you feel online spaces are more accepting of women than real-world spaces like comic book stores have tended to be?

Cloonan: I had a really good experience in my local comic book store growing up. The guys really loved having us there; my best friend and I would go in and they did their best to try and make us feel comfortable, and say, "Oh, if you like this book then you might like this," and order what they thought we'd like. I grew up in New Hampshire and there were no comic conventions where I lived. We brought our comics to the comic book store to ask them what they thought and they were really supportive. One of them gave us a copy of a "Goods And Services" guide to self-publishing and they would even tell us where to submit to. So in high school we were submitting to Image and Dark Horse and I think we were like 17 years-old at the time. Even going to conventions, I was shy growing up but I never found that people were trying to push me out. I was lucky. I know it's not the same for everybody, but because of that I try to be accepting and supportive myself, a pay it forward kind of thing.

Liu: I actually had a very good experience too, my first comic book store, the owner -- I still remember his name was Bob, he was just this sweet older man who loved comics and just loved the fact people were reading comics. So he was incredibly welcoming, and when you have a good first experience that just sets the tone. With the exception of a few sort of -- every now and then in the comic book store you get the random guys.

Cloonan: There's always one!

Liu: There's always one! But at conventions I've always had a wonderful experience. Like Becky I never felt excluded, I've never been pushed around and I've had really wonderful experiences at Marvel. I've had great mentors there. Gender never felt like an issue in my working experience at Marvel.

Let's take a look at your individual work. Becky, in 2012 you became the first woman to pencil "Batman"--

Liu & Cloonan: Yay! [Laughter]

Did you know that fact going in to it?

Cloonan: I didn't even know it when I took the job. I was actually going to turn it down and my fiance told me, "You can't turn down Batman. Are you crazy?" I was like, "Okay, fine, I'll do it." [Liu laughs] That month I had new work, I was going to Heroes Con, I thought there was no way I'd get this book done in a little less than four weeks. But then it occurred to me, it's Batman. I can't say no to Batman! And it was the perfect script for me too. I think at this point I know my strengths and weaknesses and I'm not really a superhero artist. I don't think I could ever do a team book although I love reading them. So this was kind of a perfect issue; it focused more on Harper Row who's like a cute, spunky new character, and Batman was only really in it for three panels. I was like, "Thank god, that's a lot of pressure off of me!" Because every time he was on the page I'd go, "I have to make him look perfect," and I'd get nervous, stage fright I guess you could call it. [Laughter] But I didn't even know it until they did solicitations and a few people came up and said, "I think you may be the first girl to draw 'Batman.'" I'm glad I didn't know that going into the book, because that was a lot of pressure! [Laughs]

You mentioned that you wouldn't want to draw a superhero comic and the Harper Row storyline was more personal and less about capes and cowls. What's the draw of doing indie comics versus mainstream superhero comics?

Cloonan: I think it's kind of like if someone asked me to sing in my favorite band. If they were like, "Hey do you want to replace Bruce Dickinson in Iron Maiden?" I'd be like, "No way, I'd ruin it!" I'd rather just listen to it! [Laughter] I read X-Men and I'm reading "Young Avengers" right now so I have a few books that I pull. At this point in my career I think I just like telling more personal stories and I want to start focusing on my writing too. I think that takes me in a different direction. But it doesn't dampen my love for superhero books at all. It's actually kind of nice knowing that, it's more comfortable knowing what I do best as an artist.

Liu: I have to say, I adore your run on "Conan." I just love it -- I love it, I love it, I love it!

Cloonan: Thank you! It was fun!

When people talk about the way women are depicted in comics there's always conversations about how women are over-sexualized. But with "Conan," Becky, you were drawing a comic where the main character was in the original book basically naked all the time--

Cloonan: Oh yeah, she was running around topless! [Laughter] I wanted to stick as close to the original story by Robert E. Howard as I could, and in the story Belit is running around topless. I was like, "How can I do this without actually drawing boobs," because I couldn't. So I actually just made her draped in jewelry. I think the thing with that character is she can walk a fine line -- I think a lot of characters walk a fine line -- between cheesecake and being a really powerful character. I wanted to depict her as sexy as I could but very, very powerful and using that to her advantage. I also wanted to make someone who was very scary. As sexy as she is, she's also got this look in her eye that is a little frightening. If you've ever read the story, it's a pretty short story actually, "Queen Of The Black Curse," the original story you might want to check it out. Brian [Wood] is doing a great job adapting. I had a lot of good sources to go on, but I was really pulling from the source material and trying not to make her -- I didn't want to make her waif-y. I mean she's a pirate queen!

Liu: Right!

Cloonan: You can't do that! So I was like, "Okay, what can I do to make her as powerful as possible while still keeping her running around topless and just owning that."

As an artist you have control over how the characters look on the page and you're able to make them powerful and sexy. Marjorie, as a writer have you had times where you've written a female character and then when you get the pages back it's way more sexualized than you want?

Liu: You know, I've only had that experience twice and it was a long time ago. I've been fortunate to work with artists who were all men but were all men who knew how to draw women in ways that were interesting and sexy but it never feels over the top and never feels that they're portraying women simply for the male gaze. Like I said, early on I had one or two experiences. Neither was terrible, I wasn't really offended, it wasn't anything where I said, "Halt the presses!" But they were both instances where it was too late to change anything so I just went with it. But I really haven't had much experience with that, to be honest. I think when I was doing "Black Widow" [artist] Daniel Acuna did a stunning Black Widow. His Black Widow was always dressed impeccably. She was sexy but put together in a way that didn't diminish her sex appeal at all, it only made her sexier that she was in her trench coat and her fedora. I think that's one thing when you're working with an artist, working with someone who has just an impeccable sense of storytelling but also impeccable taste when it comes to the characters and the way everything's put together. It's very much individual style but I've been blessed to work with some wonderful people.

Another group that pops up whenever people talk about women in comics is the X-Men and how that team has been much more inclusive in regards to gender and diversity -- we even had the gay wedding of Northstar in "Astonishing." Do you think this is because there's a bigger push for diversity behind the scenes? Or is it a factor of many X-Men characters being created fairly recently, and equality is much more on the forefront of creators' minds than it was 70 years ago?

Liu: I'm not quite sure how to answer that because just from my experience working at Marvel I think so much of the stories that are told depend on the writer themselves. I think sometimes, rarely, a story will reflect a top-down decision, but in my experience the characters that are chosen are chosen because the writer wants to work with them. For example, the characters in "Astonishing X-Men" with the exception of -- I love Wolverine -- but he was definitely like, "You have to put Wolverine in the book, it's an X-Men book." [Laughs] Which is a mandate I can live with, I really enjoy writing him! But for the most part these were characters I read before in other books and I loved and wanted to work with them. I think perhaps my enthusiasm got the better of me because I think my original team may have been a tad too big, but I couldn't help myself. I had the chance to put together the team and I wanted to write Karma and I wanted to write Cecilia Reyes and Gambit and Northstar and all these characters!

Cloonan: Yay, Gambit! I love Gambit.

Liu: I love Gambit! [Laughter] But they are a diverse cast, which is also a reflection of my own taste, because I love seeing different people in the book. So it's partially a reflection of my love of certain characters, but it's also a reflection of my desire to have a very diverse cast. No one can deny it's nice to have folks that aren't entirely whitewashed.

Cloonan: I think when you look at the history of X-Men too, it's a great book that reflects diversity in general, and the whole team is about that. They're mutants. They get attention for their actions because they're different. Even the politics of it, there's the senators and people for and against the mutant revolution. Every character in that book has a different accent and everybody is from different parts of the world. It was actually one of my favorite books growing up, and it was such a soap opera too.

Liu: Oh yeah. [Laughs]

Cloonan: It was Jim Lee's "X-Men" that got me hooked on comics.

Liu: Did you say Jubilee?

Cloonan: I love Jubilee! Her big earrings and her trench coat, she was one of my favorite characters. But no, it was Jim Lee. [Laughter] It was Jim Lee's "X-Men" #1 that got me really hooked. The characters were great and it wasn't just strong female characters like Storm and Jubilee and Rogue but all the characters. There was such a reflection of age and race and disability -- Professor X is the leader and he's in a wheelchair, it blew my mind.

Liu: I'm totally with you.

Marjorie, the character I'd be remiss not to talk about with you is X-23. This is a character that oddly parallels your own fandom in that she began not in comics but in TV -- specifically the "X-Men: Evolution" TV show.

Liu: Well, it's funny because I never watched "X-Men: Evolution." I was a fan of the original X-Men cartoon way back in the '90s.

Cloonan: It's the best!

Liu: I love that show, oh my gosh! [Laughter] But you're right, she started out in the TV series and then I think "NYX" was her first comic book before slowly being integrated into the X-Universe. My first exposure to X-23 was actually in "NYX." Then later on I started reading "X-Force" where I think that was her next really major role. But there was something about X-23's character. It was her youth but also her vulnerability. I think it's an interesting metaphor for a lot of girls in the sense that a lot of girls growing up feel like they don't have a lot of choices. They feel like their choices are stripped away, or it's easy to get discouraged or for people to tell you, "You can't do this" or "You can't do that" or -- and not just for girls but for boys too -- to grow up in an environment where your parents or the world around you tries to mold you in a particular way. There was something about X-23 that she was the extreme of all that. She's incredibly dangerous; I would argue she's one of the best fighters in the Marvel Universe. But at the same time, at the core of her, the spirit of her, there's a vulnerability that was really attractive to me as a writer. I just felt a deep affinity for her character. I loved writing her. If I could still be writing her now, I would. It's hard because you don't own these characters so at the end of the day you have to go into any project knowing you could be taken off of it at any time. It's not yours. You can't let yourself get too emotionally invested because of that. But I have to admit, X-23 is the one character that I became very emotionally invested in.

Cloonan: But there's a bravery to that because you know you can't get emotionally invested in these characters because you don't own them -- but if you don't get emotionally invested you're going to end up with dead stories.

Liu: Yeah, it's true.

Cloonan: And X-23 is another great example like Belit she could have easily fallen to the side of cheesecake and been another -- I hate to say Red Sonja, but I mean, look at her! [Laughter] X-23 could have easily just been a victim character, but the way you wrote her she was strong and there was much more depth to her than there could have been.

Liu: Thank you, thank you very much for that.

In this interview series we spoke with Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti about their work in the '80s and '90s and they both felt that if they had just does female characters their careers wouldn't have gone as far because female character books tend to get cancelled sooner than male characters. Do you think that's still the case?

Liu: I just like writing stories and I like finding characters that I fall in love with and that I feel like I can do something with. I leave sales, I leave concerns about marketing to other people. I just keep my focus on the story and characters and try to do the best job I can. I've been fortunate to be offered a pretty diverse cast of characters to work with, like "Dark Wolverine," "Black Widow," "X-23," "NYX." I don't feel like I've been put in a particular slot. But this is one of those situations where it's kind of weird because I guess there is an argument to be made that female character books do tend to get cancelled earlier than their male counterparts. I think we could sit and talk about this all day long. I don't know if that's because a lot of the female characters, as wonderful and exciting as they are, if it's habit that people are more used to buying Wolverine as opposed to another book that hasn't been around as long. I don't know.

Cloonan: But "Ms. Marvel" had a great run and now it's "Captain Marvel" with Kelly Sue [DeConnick] writing it and that's phenomenal. You just need to give them more time and the right marketing. I mean, with the right marketing anyone will buy a book! [Laughter]

Liu: I know, I know!

Cloonan: But it is important that companies realize [that]. With Captain Marvel they've got a great character here and I think they realize it and are willing to put the extra effort into marketing her correctly so she'll succeed as a character. Black Widow, too. She's in the movies -- I mean could there be, finally, a female superhero movie?

Liu: That would be great.

Cloonan: I think Black Widow is great, I'd watch that.

We're doing this for women's history month, but I know as female creators you often get asked over and over about women in comics. From your perspectives actually working in the industry, how big an impact does this conversation have on things like hiring more women or portraying women in comics? Are we accomplishing anything, or are we talking in circles when we do this?

Cloonan: That's the big question, right? As silly as it is, sometimes I do get irritated because so many of my interviews are, "Oh, now we'll do this for the women's issue! We want to put you in the magazine in the girls' issue!" Why can't I just be in the regular issue? Why can't you just highlight women doing awesome things because they're doing awesome things, not because you have to lump them all together in a special issue? At the same time, if there are girls who do feel shy and love comics but they feel intimidated, if they read this and it helps encourage them and inspire them to go and try to make their own comics then I think it's worth it. I don't think you're necessarily going to change the way people hire or the way the masses think about things. What we're doing is we're slowly changing things. If a young girl out there is reading this and decides to get into comics because of reading this, that means we helped one person and that one person could help one person down the road to make more comics. That's what we're doing right now. I know it can be redundant and I know a lot of my fellow creators are sick of the discussion! [Laughter] But as long as there are less women involved it is a conversation that needs to happen. Sexism still happens; I know I've had my share of creepy dudes at conventions. I've never felt excluded because of my gender, but at the same time there are problems and there are sad cases of harassment and horrible things happening on the Internet that I don't want to talk about because it gets me so mad. As long as that's still happening, we still need to have this discussion, and I can deal with it!

Liu: Yes. Absolutely. Totally.

Women In Comics concludes next week as "Nimona's" Noelle Stevenson and "Bat Boy"/"Girls With Slingshots'" Danielle Corsetto talk about webcomics and the future of women in comics. Be sure to check out our previous installments with Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti here, and Joyce Farmer and Trina Robbins here.

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