PRO-GIRLS Pt 2: History's Role in Comics' Gender Disparity

PRO-GIRLS Pt 2: History & Disparity

While there's plenty of pressure being put upon the comics industry to hire more women, there's an existing problem that makes it even more difficult to do.

Creators we surveyed indicated that while there is sometimes a bias against women in the comics industry, that isn't the biggest factor behind the current gender disparity. The root cause of the shortage of women creating comics is a shortage of women who want to create comics.

"Something that a lot of people don't seem to want to understand or accept is that American mainstream comics have a heavier male following than female," said Christina Strain, a colorist for Marvel Comics. "Therefore, you're going to have more men wanting to work in the industry than women."

Strain is proof that there are currently many talented women who work in comics, but another female artist, Fiona Staples, agreed that there would be even more if the interest existed among the reading audience.

"I think fewer women consider the possibility of creating comics because fewer are big fans of comics in the first place, at least, in the world of mainstream North American comics," she said.

Staples and Strain both specified "American" comics because in other parts of the world, women do read, write and draw comics. But in North America, it tends to be perceived as a pastime for boys.

Why? And can that change?

In Part 2 of our "Pro-Girls" series on women in comics, Newsarama looks at how history helped shape the gender disparity in North American comics, and how more recent history is changing things.

The Rise of Superheroes

When comic books were first being published, there were few limitations on what types of sequential stories were being created for the public.

"I have been looking at a lot of older comic books lately and I have been stunned by the tremendous variety in them," said Louise Krasniewicz, an anthropologist and lecturer for the University of Pennsylvania who studies fan culture. "In the '30s to the '60s, male superheroes did not seem to dominate the comic book scene. There were female superheroes, cowboys, magic, fantasy, romance, detective and crime, Disney galore, kids' stuff, things from movies and TV shows, Charlie Chan, science, history, fairy tales, and so on."

Has the CCA Been Defunct Since 2009?
Has the CCA Been Defunct Since 2009?

But that all changed in the 1950's in North America, when a controversy about violence in comics led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, an organization that censored adult themes out of comics. The goal was to minimize the "negative" effect comic violence might have on teens. But what resulted was that only child-aimed comics could survive, and those were mostly aimed at boys.

"When comics began in the '40s and '50s, it was a fairly unilateral audience," said Tom Brevoort, senior vice president at Marvel Comics. "As the times changed, as the Comics Code came in, and as we moved from the newsstand mass-market model to the direct market specialty store model, superheroes became more and more of the dominate genre published within comics, because it was the one that could most readily survive these changes."

"The remaining stereotypical male superhero took over and became the easiest sell as something safe for kids," Krasniewicz explained.

"It's not that you can't have a successful or well-written female superhero," Brevoort added, "but in general, historically, proportionately, we haven't had as many. So there are whole decades in which what exists in the mainstream medium isn't specifically targeting girls and women. [Publishers] were happy to have them and get them if they were there. It wasn't like they were actively looking to not target them, but in terms of the kind of stories they were telling, they were doing things that were really built to appeal mostly to boys."

Direct Market

Then in the 1970's, after the target audience became so limited, the market for comic books began to decline on newsstands. The direct market, made up of small, local comic shops, became the primary distribution network for North American comics.

Witchblade #25

"The direct market meant that you found comics in a comic book store," said Jen Van Meter, the writer behind comics like the upcoming Marvel title Avengers: Solo.. "And a lot of the comic stores that I encountered 20 or more years ago were not places that looked inviting to me. And especially in the 1990's, most of what was advertised in the windows was ladies whose body parts were spilling out of armor. It was kind of the theme at the time.

"The stuff that was being promoted was not stuff that made me say, 'Ooo, I want to go in there!'" Van Meter said.

Other genres and more diverse stories did exist during that time period, Van Meter said, but the perception among the public about comic book stores was that they were places for boys. And so that's the type of new readers it attracted.

"Consequently, in terms of whatever future aspirations readers had, there were more male would-be creators, who were interested in working in comics, than there were female would-be creators," Brevoort said.

Van Meter said that perception is slowing changing though. And even the comic stores she visits are more female-friendly.

Collectibility and Conventions

In North America, publicity about the money that could be made by selling old comics drove a collectibility market during the late '80s and early '90s that helped swell sales numbers, yet didn't speak to women the way it spoke to men.

"When I started going to conventions, they were almost exclusively into the collector market," Van Meter said. "There were a few people doing 'Zines and there were people promoting new superhero comics, but for the most part, it was a room full of people selling old comics.

Van Meter said the fact that the collectors market dominated the earliest conventions made those gatherings attractive hubs for retailers and collectors, instead of new readers who weren't necessarily into collecting as a hobby.

"It seems to me that collecting and speculating as a hobby into itself was maybe more of a boy-oriented activity," she said. "And that sounds like I'm gendering it and saying that only dudes like to collect things. I know that's not true.

"But in terms of the way the culture has been pushing people since the '30s... comics collectors are born out of baseball card collectors and the idea that trading of things like that is a dude activity," she said. "And most of the women I know who have been drawn to comics are drawn to it because of story and not collecting value."

Van Meter pointed out that the collectibility portion of conventions has been getting smaller in recent years, and that's probably a good move for attracting diversity among readers. "Comics conventions have become different places as they've become forums for cosplay, and the forum for revealing non-comics material, like movie trailers and things like that," she said.

The Importance of Manga

Of course, all this history is limited to North America. In other areas of the world -- particularly Japan -- reading comics is something both sexes enjoy.

Takeshi Miyazawa, a Canada-born artist, started his career in North American comics but moved to Japan to break into that country's comic industry, known in the business as "manga." According to Miyazawa, there are many more female creators of manga because they grow up reading it.

"I see more women reading comics in public in Japan," he said. "They tend to be younger women on the train."

In Japan, comics are more accessible because a direct market never formed the way it did in North America, the artist said. Neither did the idea of collectibility. And Miyazawa said that because there are female creators, they tend to "create more women-friendly comics."

Natsuki Takaya's

Fruits Basket

The female-friendly nature of manga has also influenced the North American market, because Japanese titles became popular among young American girls in the U.S. during the late 1990's. Many U.S. bookstores began carrying them for the growing audience among teen girls.

"Certainly the explosion and expansion of manga and anime in the late '90s and early 2000's attracted and got a whole audience of girls and women reading comics -- not just manga, but exploding into everything else," Brevoort said.

"A ton of the women that I know who read comics, who are younger than me, came in with the explosion of manga and their availability in bookstores," Van Meter said. "Those were character-driven stories that had more in common with the fiction girls were reading, and they were available in a place they were used to shopping.

"And manga was unashamedly willing to court female readers," she said. "There's a whole circle of things that happened there, and I know a ton of women professionals who are younger than me who came in that way."

"I got into the manga side of things at first, where most of the creators I read were women," said Amy Reeder, a comic artist who works on the title Batwoman. "So to me, being female wasn’t even an issue; the issue was that I wasn’t Japanese. But as soon as I found out publishers were hiring American artists with a similar style, I disregarded all my life plans so that I could pursue comics. So I strongly believe that if you see someone like you doing something you might want to do, you will stop at nothing to try it."

Alternate Genres

Krasniewicz said women are beginning to find comics, and there are plenty of genres there to entice them nowadays.

"For many people unfamiliar with the wild and weird world of comic books, the superhero stuff is probably all they hear about or see, in their local bookstore, for example, instead of in a comic book store," said Louise Krasniewicz, an anthropologist and lecturer for the University of Pennsylvania who studies fan culture. "That's okay, but anyone who walks into a real comic book store can be amazed at the variety that exists today in comics. I think this was also the case in the past but so few people get exposure to the history of comic books beyond the superhero angle."

Karen Berger, DC Executive Editor, is well-known in the comic book industry for bringing about more genre diversity at DC Comics in the '80s and '90s with comics like Sandman. Her efforts led to the creation of DC's mature imprint Vertigo, and she pointed toward titles like Y: The Last Man, Fables and Sandman as comics that have a large following among women.

"Female readers generally don't respond to [superhero comics], but that doesn't mean that girls and women don't read comics," she said. "In my many years in comics, it's been great to see the growth in women readers."

Neil Gaiman's

Sandman #1

Brevoort agreed, pointing toward the Vertigo title Sandman as an example. "I think Sandman has done more for bringing women into comics than just about anything else in the last 20 years as a series that has an appeal there," he said.

"More than any other series, Sandman, as an evergreen title, continually brings in new female readers," Berger said.

Van Meter also pointed toward titles like Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Doom Patrol, and Justice League International by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis were influential to her as she decided to enter this career. "They were doing something atypical," Van Meter said.

Fangirls on the Internet

Krasniewicz said her studies of fan culture have shown that women are more and more interested in fan-related pursuits, and they're finding them now because of the internet, where women are using the web in larger numbers than men.

Van Meter said that even though she started reading comics before the internet, she found fulfillment in sharing her passion with other women in comics via the web. "The myth perception that there aren't women reading comics, and reading superhero comics, I think in part comes down to us not having access to each other. Before the internet, I thought I was the oddest bird in the room, because I didn't know where there other women were," she said. "That's all changing now."

Erica McGillivray is president and marketing director of GeekGirlCon, which is holding its first convention in Seattle on Oct. 8-9. She said the Internet is a game-changer for women who enjoy pursuits like comic books. "Not to discount our zine-making foremothers, but the Internet has really provided a safety blanket to create 'women's circles,'" she said. "We can use pseudonyms to hide either our gender from sexist fanboys and we can engage in making safe spaces for ourselves while connecting with fellow fangirls from all around the world."

McGillivray, who is an avid comic book reader, hopes events like GeekGirlCon will show people that there are women making comics and enjoying other artistic pursuits in areas that were traditionally believed to be male-oriented. And that "noticing" might change the history of comics and encourage other women to purse them as well.

Check back with Newsarama as we delve further into the topic of Women in Comics, talking to editors, writers and artists who have broken into the business, and finding out what the key is to getting more women on board.

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