PRO-GIRLS Part 4: Female Characters, Alternative Genres

Spider-Man, Runaways, Panther Frames

The hot-button topics concerning women and comics just keep on coming.

Over the last few months, the comics community was buzzing about how few female comic creators exist in a field dominated by men.

But this month, the new hot topic is the portrayal of female characters. The discussion grew to a fever pitch after two of DC's female costumed characters were drawn in a sexually titillating way, upsetting many internet fans, who blogged en masse about sexism. Last week, Newsarama asked creators to share opinions on the issue, and everyone from Mark Millar to Gail Simone responded.

Sexism is obviously part of the equation, but it isn't the only thing that attracts an overwhelmingly male audience to comics. In Part 4 of our "Pro-Girls" series, Newsarama takes a look at the issue of women in comics from a different angle. Is the portrayal of female comic characters connected to the gender disparity in the industry? Or is it more about the genres and types of stories that the industry is creating?

And can those things change?

Female Characters & Sexism


Artist Amy Reeder, who's working on the DC series Batwoman, summed up the feelings of many female comic fans when she told Newsarama that sexism is a problem because superhero comics are off-putting to potential new readers who are female.

"I hate to be so negative, because I love comics, and I love superhero comics," Reeder said. "But seriously, you hand most mainstream [superhero] comics to a typical young woman who hasn't grown up with this stuff or paid much attention, and she will think it's totally sexist to the point of being ridiculous. It's a problem."

Fiona Staples, a female comic artist who's working on Done to Death for IDW and the Brian K. Vaughan comic Saga, said she believes there's an obvious link between the way women are portrayed and the fact that most comic creators are men.

Staples said that if publishers want to attract more women as creators and readers, they must be aware of the way they portray women. "[Publishers need to] make a conscious, educated effort to publish comics that aren't sexist," Staples said. "I feel like certain publishers are trying, but they keep making these inadvertent missteps because they don't really understand what the problem is."

Sean McKeever, who wrote the comic Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, which attracted a more gender-balanced audience of readers, said it's also frustrating that there aren't more comics that star female characters. One look at the list of top-selling comics and it's clear that they star male characters like Green Lantern and Spider-Man.

More Than Just Female Characters

Anthropologist Louise Krasniewicz, who studies fan culture for the University of Pennsylvania, said that sexism and the lack of female characters aren't the only reasons many superhero comics fail to attract female fans. She said the tendency of publishers to target "strong" female superhero characters to women often miss the mark.

"Female superheroes are cool, but if they merely imitate male ones, they miss the point," Krasniewicz said. "The male superhero story has two components: He has to devote himself to using his powers for more than his own advancement, but he also spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about and defending his identity. That doesn't make sense for a female superhero who, by our own real-life social norms, of course must help others with her powers and put her own identity aside while she does this. They are almost opposite."

The anthropologist said there's also a problem with believing only female characters can attract female readers. She said too often, creators try to make a characters with whom women can "identify."

"The term 'identify' suggests that males can only 'identify' with male characters and females with females, which of course is utterly bizarre," Krasniewicz said. "Attaching yourself to a character means you want to share their story. You want to enter their world and see what happens. It is more like being along side them as a buddy. You don't walk in their shoes but rather in their shadow, quietly, as they live in their alternative world.

"If we can get away from this notion that people identify with the characters -- that they want to be them -- then we can open up female readership by promoting the idea that there are characters that women would want to go on an adventure with," she said. "Those characters can be male or female, good or bad, as long as they take us along for the ride."

Lack of Genre Diversity

Girl Genius

Krasniewicz said there are plenty of comics that attract female fans, naming titles like Steampunk, Time Lincoln and Girl Genius. In fact, she said there are more female comic fans than ever, and she's even writing a comic targeted toward women and girls.

But those comics are not the norm in comic shops, which usually cater mostly to superhero-reading audiences.  "What would have to change is the creation of stories that engage women through a connection to things they care about already," Krasniewicz said. "Not a whole lot of women do the superhero thing."

Christina Strain, a colorist for Marvel Comics, said too much attention is given to superhero comics, which are targeted to male readers. "I don't personally love superheroes. Not that I hate them, they're just not my favorite because I prefer teen drama/character driven/angsty books, which is why I've chosen to work on some of Marvel's more quirky titles," Strain said. "[Superhero comics are] targeting a core audience of men, and that's because it's that audience that buys their books."

McKeever admitted that superhero comics tend to cater to male readers. But he said quality superhero comics can attract both men and women.

"Even within that subgenre of sci-fi that rules our particular roost, there's room for works that skew their focus to find room for different tones and subject matter," he said. "There's a lot of great, varied material out there right now, but so much more could be commercially viable if the readership were more diverse in its background and interests. And with that diversity of readers comes an even greater diversity in material as they branch out into creating comics themselves."

What Publishers Can Do

Right now, major comic book publishers are busy responding to a shrinking market. But many comic fans believe the shrinking would be helped if publishers would hire female creators and attract a more diverse audience.

But would hiring more female creators mean more women would read comics?

Paul Levitz, former president of DC Comics and current DC writer, admitted recently that stories from female creators do tend to attract female fans. "If you look at the history pattern," he said, "the success of things capable of attracting women in pop culture had women in a more significant creative role.

Friday Flashback: Sandman
Friday Flashback: Sandman

"With the whole emergence of Vertigo, which became the first modern comics line to have serious women readers very actively involved, it's not a coincidence that the editorial staff was led by a woman and included many women," Levitz said. "Yes, the same story can reach both, but the odds are a little bit better to tell a story that interests a group if it's by a person who's in it."

Karen Berger, DC Executive Editor for the Vertigo imprint, stopped short of making that connection, but she said different voices and more material for women would benefit the medium overall. "I'd love to see more women working in comics, as well as more people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds," she said. "Different life experiences and points of view make any storytelling medium richer. The more material that's published that appeals to women will ultimately inspire creative women to pursue comics as a medium to tell their stories. And that would be a wonderful thing."

Staples pointed out that female creators would at least know how to avoid sexist images and scenes in their comics. "Maybe it would also give us some new books geared toward girls -- and by that I don't mean books about makeovers and shoes, just stories told from a female perspective -- and a whole new demographic could start buying comics," Staples said.

Tom Brevoort, senior vice president at Marvel Comics, said he thinks more women will be interested in comics as a career because it's the natural progression that's already occurring; then more publishers will hire them. "It's a thing that's going to continue to evolve and change, hopefully, as the various publishers -- Marvel and everybody else -- thrive to be all-inclusive in their stories and storytelling as possible, and to attract the next aspirational group of proto-creators when they're young and get them to want to make their own comics and to do this sort of thing and to come into the field," he said.

How Fans and Creators Can Help

Strain said the responsibility isn't only on publishers. "In all honesty, I think the fans have more responsibility over this one than publishers," she said. "Publishers make books that sell. I worked on Runaways and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, and we were under constant threat of being cancelled because our numbers were poor. Those two books were just a few of several books that Marvel has actively tried to push to get more female readers in."

Moore on Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane
Moore on Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane

She said that if fans really care about women in comics, then they have to make some changes to how they approach the issue. "When you Google women and comics, the majority of what you find are angry blogs and articles that just make comics seem like comics are nothing but awful towards women, and what about that makes women want to read them let alone work in them?" Strain said, turning responsibility back on the bloggers who have complained about the issue. "What we really really need, is for fans to help fans get into comics. 

"If everyone wants publishers to change the direction their books are going in, then what needs to happen is that fans need to help direct other fans and potential fans towards the books they want to read," Strain said, indicating that support of good comics works a lot better than complaining about bad ones. "You guys need to mail publishers and tell them what you like and want out of books that you're reading. You're going to change their minds and the directions of their books when you all show them what you want in numbers."

Staples said comic creators can also help change the tide by being aware of what they draw and write. "The responsibility is also very much on us to make non-sexist comics with diverse casts of characters!" she said. "Writers have the ability to give us well-developed female characters with strength and personality. Artists can choose to vary the appearances of the women they draw to make those characters really look like individuals, rather than props that were all cast from the same mold. Not only does this make comics more accessible to female readers, but it makes them more interesting overall."

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