SDCC 09: Marvelous Women of Marvel Comics

SDCC 09:Marvelous Women of Marvel Comics

After a jam-packed week of programming, Marvel’s final panel at Comic-Con International: San Diego was a spotlight on the Women of Marvel. This wasn’t a feature on Marvel’s many super-heroines, though; it was instead a celebration of the many brilliant female creators who make their employ in the House of Ideas.

Jim McCann initially welcomed the panel and audience, and made the announcement that colorist extraordinaire Laura Martin was the newest Marvel exclusive creator. McCann, acknowledging that he was somewhat out of place given the direction of the panel, then departed the stage, and turned things over to the ladies.

The conversational panel was attended by colorists Laura Martin, Christina Strain, and Emily Warren, Dark Wolverine co-writer Marjorie Liu, artist Colleen Coover, and collected editions editor Jen Grünwald. Just about every facet of the comic-creating industry was represented, and the panelists were eager to share their experiences and success in the longtime male-dominated industry.

Grünwald began the discussion, diving into her role as editor of collections and the Marvel Handbooks. Martin asked her about the design aspects of her role, and Grünwald got into the nuts-and-bolts of the process of collecting trade paperbacks and hardcovers. Grünwald spoke of the limitations of page counts, and expressed that she avoids repackaging classic era Marvel stories, citing the need for re-coloring and other taxing aspects.

Laura Martin shared some of her considerable résumé with the audience, and discussed coloring Thor, The Stand, Secret Invasion, and The Ultimates. She then thanked both Strain and Warren for their help on the impossibly large Secret Invasion miniseries.

Colleen Coover told the audience that the bulk of her work for Marvel comes as flashback, interlude stories, in such titles as X-Men: First Class, Power Pack Day One and Amazing Spider-Man Family.

Marjorie Liu informed the audience that her first Marvel work had come with NYX: No Way Home, that she was now on Dark Wolverine, and that she writes prose books as well as comics.  A lot of books, McCann chimed in from the audience.

Emily Warren shared that she works as a colorist on Big Hero Six, Dark Reign: Young Avengers, and provided assists on Secret Invasion.

Christina Strain told the audience that she’d worked on Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Daughters of the Dragon, World War Hulk, and Runaways. She then took the opportunity to thank both Martin and Peter Steigerwald for teaching her the ins and outs of the business, even if her first job at Crossgen lasted only months before folding.

After the panel had made their introductions, they opened the conversation to the floor, encouraging involvement. In what is a staple of almost any open-ended audience Q&A with creators, an aspiring writer, a teacher, asked about how to enter the industry, and asked about their breakthroughs as pros, specifically Liu, as the representative writer on the panel.

Liu cited herself as having a rather roundabout journey to Marvel. Already an accomplished novelist, she’d written an X-Men novel for Pocket called Dark Mirror that led to a meeting during a New York Comic-Con, and the process started from there. But it took three long years, she said, and that was what led to NYX. She was already a novelist, she warned, so her body of work helped. She cited a need for some kind of résumé to showcase one’s talents.

Coover, married to Marvel writer Paul Tobin, agreed that it’s hard to break in. No editor can ever look at an unpublished script, really, because they’re always forced to be focusing on their own scripts and projects. So the best way is to get in, she stressed, is via smaller venues. Track down your own artist, and make the comics.

Strain said the easiest and best way to get out there is to do a web-comic. Even if creators can’t draw, there are ways to make things happen. She cited the rudimentarily drawn XKCD as the best webcomic ever. Finding an artist is important, she agreed, but a motivated creator can do it with stick figures alone.

Coover also said that there’s no need to make superhero comics to get into the superhero industry. She brought up her own work, Oni’s Banana Sunday, as her own entry point to the commercial industry. Just prove you can tell a story.

Here, occasionally pulling the panel’s strings from the audience, McCann asked about the panel’s feelings on sexism in and around comics.

Martin talked about her history in comics, but stressed that, to her own mind, she’s a colorist first. Her biggest pet peeve, she said, was the expectation that as a woman, it’s somehow her responsibility or obligation to reach other women. Getting into the tumultuous history of Crossgen, she claimed she was hired as a manager for a department by Mark Alessi because of an assumption that as a woman, she’d have to be “nice,” to people

Strain took to task the conventional wisdom as to why there are fewer women than men in comics. She claimed the biggest reason in the U.S. was very simply that there are fewer women than men trying to break in. She told an anecdote of how she sees women in line at portfolio reviews, and gets excited, only to find out they’re holding the place of their boyfriends, who are off shopping. Outside of the U.S., though, the ratio is closer to 50/50. The customer base is more male than female here, so it only makes sense. The biggest way is to get women to create American comics is to get them first to read them.

Martin, who works at Gaijin Studios with artists like Cully Hamner and Brian Stelfreeze, said that in their studio, they often welcome interns from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and expressed her excitement that more and more, she sees young women come in with impressive portfolios. Martin then went on to say that one of her least favorite praises of female colorists is that they are somehow more subtle in their color choices, as male colorists like Jose Villarrubia are as subtle as anyone.

Coover, agreeing, said that her favorite colors are somewhat garish- bright reds and bright yellows. She also works in a studio, made up of twenty-four members, six of whom are women. They also get SCAD interns, and she’s been similarly impressed. She also cited the Portland comics scene as a nearly 50/50 gender ratio.

Strain also said they face the issue of over-compensated, perceived sexism, and the way some rush to the defense of women unnecessarily. She raised an example of an interview she gave where the questioner raised issue with the portrayal of the women on the X-Men 500 cover. She laughed, because she’d colored that cover, drawn by the Dodsons, making 2/3 of the artists involved with the image women. Martin, agreeing, chimed in, “we’ve all colored a bunch of breasts.”

A fan asked if the panel felt part of what kept female readers away from the industry was a lack of female characters, if they thought that had changed, if the female characters had evolved, and if that sort of thing mattered to them as creators.

Strain remarked that her interests lie strictly in content, stating her preference for romance and slice of life books. While she could see it helping, it is less important who’s leading the book than the content itself. She said no female character was ever going to make her love science fiction. When she reads fantasy, the lead character’s gender has little impact on her preferences. Her main beef was that she hates any and all stereotypical characters in her comics. Even in manga, she stated her distaste for overly emotional female characters.

Coover shared a story of how writer Jeff Parker had originally wanted to recast Angel as a girl in X-Men First Class, to balance genders. She then brought up some of the more subtle emphases in the Marvel Adventures line, such as how Sue Storm is very clearly the leader of the Fantastic Four in that book.

The panel agreed that the real need was for female creators. There needed not be female leads for the sake of female leads, because that, they joked, was what led to many of the books of the 90s.

An audience member asked if they thought the wall of ignorance was something that arose at the retail level, or if it was a generational thing.

Both generation and technology, Strain contended. Having grown up in Korea reading manga and manwha, after her mother had done the same, there was nothing more normal to her than reading comics. All of her friends in Korea were girls, she said, and so they read girl books. When she moved here, and became friends with more men, she went on to read more adventure books.  The Internet has also made it easier, as there is more networking with worldly, international creators.

Martin, bringing up Sequential Tart, felt that oftentimes retailers are biggest problem. Sequential Tart had started off as a Garth Ennis fan club, but went to spotlight comic stores that were inclusive to women, spreading the gospel of good shops. Here the audience broke loose in mentioning their own favorite female-friendly shops, sharing all of their favorites.

Strain agreed that it is often times shops that give the ground level of bad experiences.

Liu said the industry itself is very friendly to female creators, but it’s the outside arms that are slower to progress. She shared a story of less than a month ago where she’d had a ‘but you’re a girl,’ moment with a reporter. The panel was aghast that this sort of ignorance still existed.

A fan asked about how the panel felt fans of Marvel’s properties coming from the films could be brought into the comics’ fold.

Liu spoke of the wall occasionally present in retail, and how women can still be made to feel uncomfortable in the insular, unwelcoming environments of some shops.

Martin said retailers need to make efforts to offer starting points to readers new to comics.

A fan then asked if the panel had feelings about the body image issues that could arise from the idealization of comics. While the panel respected the point, it was generally agreed upon that the men in comics had similarly impossible physiques.

When a fan asked about what character the panelists would most like to work on, the overwhelming consensus was Rogue. “She needs to help,” Liu opined. She was the favorite of everyone, with Grünwald saying she watched the 90s X-Men cartoon, where her love for the mutant was born. “She can’t kiss anybody,” Strain said, “It’s the saddest thing ever!” They didn’t note the most recent developments of the character, preferring to focus on her tragic history.

A fan asked about how committed Marvel is to the titles designed to bring in new readers, such as X-Men First Class. Grünwald promised that they want the books to succeed, of course, but it’s a business first, so there are monetary obligations.

Marvel makes attempts to foster new readership wherever they can, but they can’t produce books without returns. It’s not cheap to make comics, Strain promised. Coover mentioned that some fans think that they have the answers in reducing the rising costs, but warned that “exclusives don’t make anybody rich.” It’s the price of paper, and distribution that drive costs.

An audience member asked, given the influx of Japanese and manga influences, and given how many colorists were on the panel, if there was any amount of the black and white tradition of Japanese comics that could seep into the American market.

Strain said that she’d practiced screen toning when she was younger, when she thought she’d be making romance comics, but that she didn’t see it as a big factor in American books.

Martin candidly joked that she hopes Marvel doesn’t start doing too much in black and white.

A fan asked Liu how much freedom she felt she had from editorial. Liu said that she was only told to go write a great story, work from outline that suggestions were made upon, and as long as it’s not offensive, freedom reigns. She did admit, sighing, that there was some offensive content she and co-writer Daniel Way were hoping to get through, but couldn’t.

Grünwald pointed out that there is continuity to be considered, but agreed when Liu added that it’s really about good storytelling.

With the hour up, and the long week of programming wrapped, Jim McCann thanked the panelists and the fans, and declared the end of Marvel’s last panel at SDCC 2009.

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