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Comics - Beyond the boys club
July 23, 2012 4:59 PM   Subscribe

Women in comics and the tricky art of equality
posted by Artw (33 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
They’re not cheesecakey women books. They’re strong female characters.

YOU RANG

god I love Kate Beaton
posted by zennish at 5:22 PM on July 23, 2012 [23 favorites]


zennish beat me to it! Heh.

It's odd to talk about superhero comics (or any genre) as a sort of lost cause of boyzone that Can Never Get Better. Of course it can. But clearly you have to get some people in charge who aren't afraid to just go ahead and write women characters as people, not just fap fodder. It's taking a lot longer than it should, but then sexism is like that.
posted by emjaybee at 5:49 PM on July 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


I bought several number one when DC did its relaunch. I did not buy any number twos.
posted by bq at 5:57 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I bought several number one when DC did its relaunch. I did not buy any number twos.

It could be argued that when you bought all those DC #1s, you ended up with a pile of #2.

Thankyew, I'll be here all week.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:08 PM on July 23, 2012 [12 favorites]


I really liked this because this is how the conversation should go. Women are making comics in quite a large number and will continue to do so -- Jessica Abel's comment that her classes are predominantly female is something I've heard many times from many different people -- but people just want to talk about the lack of women at Marvel and DC because unless you work for those companies, your comics are apparently irrelevant.

Do I think it's a problem that more women don't work at Marvel and DC? In a way -- I would love if women who want to work for those companies are given the same opportunities as men who want to work there. But I'm willing to bet a lot of women making comics have no interest in doing so. And more power to them for that.

I read a lot of comics by women just because I do. Yeah, sometimes I very much seek them out, but other times it just happens. It's what appeals to and interests me.

Last year at Small Press Expo, I think it was determined that about 40 percent of the exhibitors were female. I don't think anyone's gone through the list yet this year, but I bet it's about the same if not a little bit higher. I'd say the split of attendees was about the same.

The big two can keep rebooting comics back to the '90s all they want (and I flip through a few superhero titles in when I'm in my friend's store so I'm not being a snob. Some are fun enough but few hold my interest), but that's not the future of comics. I don't necessarily believe that the future of comics belongs only to women, but they're going to be a huge part of it. And they already are.
posted by darksong at 6:11 PM on July 23, 2012


“Outside the world of Marvel and DC, women are just doing it, and it’s awesome,” said Heidi MacDonald, a comics journalist and former editor for Disney and DC Comics. “They’re succeeding or failing on the content of their work.”
I think this is absolutely true. But then I talk to someone--(practically) anyone--about comics and it's instantly obvious that women writing and reading comics is still not really A Thing, even though it's undeniably a thing.

If that makes any sense at all.
posted by byanyothername at 6:19 PM on July 23, 2012


MacDonald, Abel, Oleksyk and others are quick to point out that the frequently spotlighted superhero genre is just a tide pool in an ocean of work — a tide pool that has somehow managed to delay the sea change undergone by the rest of the industry.

Not to minimize the quality work done outside the superhero genre, but that "tide pool" is what keeps everyone else afloat, to butcher the metaphor.

DC and Marvel are to the comics business what football and basketball are to college athletics -- they make everything else possible. Sure, Dark Horse can move a few units of Buffy Season 9, but the only reason there are comic shops to sell those issues in is because of the X-Men and Batman. Getting women into positions of power at those two companies -- editorially or creatively -- is the key to changing the industry, not minimizing the impact that the Big Two have by acting mystified that they're "somehow" holding everything else back.
posted by Etrigan at 6:22 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


To be fair, some women have succeeded on the quality of their work, some have failed on the quality of their work, and some have done some really great work that's gone mostly unacknowledged and they couldn't pay the bills on it so they did other stuff instead. The problem with a mainstream comics industry that could be more interested in women creators and in creating comics that might appeal more strongly to women is that the mainstream comics industry generates jobs, and the webcomics/minicomics/hellevenindiecomics industry generates material that mostly doesn't pay for itself to speak of. Some mutant superheroes like Kate Beaton do work that everyone loves and it gets linked all over the internet and (one presumes) it makes those people good money, but it may be less than you think. It's all well and good to do it on your own, but it's a hell of a thing to try to make a living doing it.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:30 PM on July 23, 2012


And yet every article about women in comics is apparently required to include head shots. Nice.
posted by milk white peacock at 7:03 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


These articles always dance around the real issue. Comics are stunted creatively. It is as if you have five Citizen Kanes and a million remakes of Porky's. Oh, and a dozen deconstructing Porky's. Unlike Movies and Books where some people think "I have a story to tell, I'm going to write a book to tell my story" comics are more "I have a comic story to tell"
and it is no surprise that the vast majority of stories told in comics are comic stories. The pool of people telling personal stories is drowned out in a sea of Porky's.

I'm not knocking Porky's, but if every movie was a rexploration of The Teen Sex Commedy it would get old real quick.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:47 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


some women have succeeded on the quality of their work, some have failed on the quality of their work, and some have done some really great work that's gone mostly unacknowledged and they couldn't pay the bills on it so they did other stuff instead.

The last thing happens in all media to men, women, and both (e.g., a music band comprised of men and women). The real metric of equality is are there women who make absolute shit comics but still somehow manage to make a bunch of money doing it?
posted by aubilenon at 8:09 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


The real metric of equality is are there women who make absolute shit comics that lots of readers buy in large numbers but still somehow manage to make a bunch of money doing it?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:26 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Comics are stunted creatively.

I'm assuming you're using "comics" as a synecdoche for "mainstream superhero comics", because otherwise this statement is flat-out incorrect. Comics are undergoing an unprecedented renaissance, and the medium has never been more fecund than it is at this moment.
posted by Sokka shot first at 8:28 PM on July 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


The last thing happens in all media to men, women, and both (e.g., a music band comprised of men and women).

It does. However, looking at an independent creator's chances vs. the chances of a creator who is employed by one of the major comics companies is relevant to this discussion because the nature of major comics companies means that a woman is much more likely to publish independently than to publish through a major comics company. That means she's more likely to bail out of comics within a few months or years than is a male counterpart, who is more likely -- even if he began as an independent -- to have found a niche working on mainstream comics.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:33 PM on July 23, 2012


I'm assuming you're using "comics" as a synecdoche for "mainstream superhero comics", because otherwise this statement is flat-out incorrect.

I read just about every comic anyone recommends to me. Doesn't it say something that we are at and unprecedented renaissance and they are still so mediocre? In the past couple weeks I've read Fatale, that was ok. Century: 2009, that was ok. I've started My Friend Dahmer, that is ok. Maybe I am biased and just don't like comics but I don't feel any of them are important.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:37 PM on July 23, 2012


DC and Marvel are to the comics business what football and basketball are to college athletics -- they make everything else possible. Sure, Dark Horse can move a few units of Buffy Season 9, but the only reason there are comic shops to sell those issues in is because of the X-Men and Batman.


The direct market can't die fast enough.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 8:38 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not to minimize the quality work done outside the superhero genre, but that "tide pool" is what keeps everyone else afloat, to butcher the metaphor. DC and Marvel are to the comics business what football and basketball are to college athletics -- they make everything else possible. Sure, Dark Horse can move a few units of Buffy Season 9, but the only reason there are comic shops to sell those issues in is because of the X-Men and Batman.

I'm sorry, but what you describe bears no resemblance to the comics industry as I've experienced it, and I've been working in and around that industry for almost ten years.

It's true that Marvel and DC are gigantic companies with massive resources available to them, that fact increasingly has little to do with actual comics. The "big two" are essentially machines that churn out franchise content, and then a teeny tiny fraction of their money and resources to make comics that people read. It used to be that they were a great gig if you wanted a reliable paycheck -- I once wrote a short comic at DC rates and it was something like $150 a page for a newcomer right out the gate -- but that seems to be less true than it once was. Friends of mine do bits and pieces of work-for-hire for them from time to time, but these days BOOM! studios (Adventure Time comics) and Bongo (Simpsons comics) are dishing out most of the single-issue freelance money in my extended circle, and as far as I know they're both completely independent.

Which brings me to the fact that single-issue "pamphlet" style comics are becoming something of a relic. It's true that it's almost impossible to make any kind living off of them unless you're a freelancer doing licensed work-for-hire, but that's because most full-time comics artists are either graphic novelists or one of a lucky handful of webcomics creators.

You're kinda-right that Dark Horse isn't going to move as many units as some larger publishers (although that's less true with each passing year, Dark Horse is under new editorial management and making some very smart and very aggressive decisions) but that's almost beside the point right now. For one thing, as I said before, pamphlets are going the way of newspapers at this point. For another, Dark Horse is only one of many, MANY publishers and imprints that are in the process of bringing long-form comics further and further into the mainstream. And very few of those people care about the direct market (comic book stores) any more than they absolutely have to.

I'll start out by looking at the NYT bestseller lists for paperback and hardcover graphic novels right now. First, note that "manga" has been spun off into its own list, because it kept overloading the other lists week after week. The top manga books this week are all from VIZ (owned by Japanese publishers Shueisha and Shogakukan) and Kodansha. It's true that right now a LOT of the top graphic novels are from DC, clocking in at 10 titles between the two lists, but 7 of those are Batman-related due to the film having just come out, and as far as I can tell all or most of those are reprints of old material (which I'll come back to.) The rest of the list is from Image (4) Dark Horse (2) Scholastic (1) Del Rey/Random house (2) and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1).

Note that almost none of those books were sold in comic book stores. I've actually had a book on the NYT bestseller list (the worst book I've ever worked on, but that's a whole other story), and so I had an opportunity to have some folks explain to me why that had happened -- apparently Walmart had decided to order it, and combined with the fact that it was connected to a film that was coming out basically guaranteed us a slot. The book was for a Random House subsidiary, and it moved a LOT of units, and for a few weeks it was on the "Summer Blockbusters" shelf of Barnes and Noble in the country because the buyer at Random House had done whatever deal was necessary to make sure that happened.

So there's that: within the realm of bestsellers, while DC and Marvel absolutely throw their weight around, they're hardly the only game in town and they rely very heavily on long-running franchises that don't funnel very much money back into the larger comics community.

Because honestly, although it was fun being a "NYT bestseller" for a week or two, that's not actually the kind of gig you want. Bestseller slots are for franchise tie-ins and the occasional breakout hit (like Scholastic's Smile, by my friend Raina Telgemeier, which is back on the bestseller list again even though it's been out for ages.) You don't make a living off of bestsellers, particularly if you're a freelancer like me who isn't even going to see any royalties from those sales.

You make a living when your original books are picked up by stable, well-respected imprints and publisher, or when they to collaborate with someone else. Sure, Dark Horse is up there on that list of publishers, but they've been putting a lot of resources into franchise projects recently. There's also Oni Press, who published the Scott Pilgrim books; First Second, which has a large and diverse catalog including "American Born Chinese" and "Anya's Ghost"; Drawn and Quarterly, which put out Kate Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant"; Houghton Mufflin, which published Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home"….honestly, you should just google it, because there's a TON going on right now in the world of comics.

That's what people mean when they talk about Marvel and DC being a "tide pool." It's not about money, although sure, money is a part of it -- money that actual working comics creators are making, as opposed to money going to whoever it is that makes money off of Batman or Spiderman. It's also about what's interesting, what's exciting, what's happening in the community of people who're making and marketing this stuff.

The biggest problem in comics right now, aside from the abysmal state of the economy in general, is that the big print publishers want to get into the business of graphic novels but still haven't ironed out all the kinks of how best to go about that. Should they serialize books online first, or will that scare bookstore buyers who don't want to stock something people can get on the internet for free? Should they print smaller runs of gorgeous hardcovers to try and make owning a physical book more enticing, or churn out mass market paperbacks on cheap paper and aim for the lowest possible pricepoint, or should they abandon print entirely and figure out how to make money from ebooks instead?

But they are going to figure it out. And they'll keep putting out amazing books, some of which will be in the the various "top ten" lists and many of which will chug along happily paying people's bills. And Marvel and DC will continue their inexorable march toward being movie studios. And superhero-weary comics professionals like me will continue to interact with them as little as they possible can.

Marvel and DC aren't the primary sources of forward momentum within the comics industry. Arguably, their relevance to the working comics community as a whole is at an all-time low. I have worked in comics for years, and the only thing that Batman makes possible in my life is a pile of movies I don't watch and books that I don't read.

Which isn't even getting into the immense, seemingly bottomless well of webcomics, some of which have readerships in the tens (hundreds!) of thousands. It's a tough road toward success, but people manage it. People I personally know have figured out how to make internet comics their full-time job -- several people, even -- and that horse is barely out of the gate. Bandwidth is getting cheaper, money is getting easier to spend online, and the community as a whole is learning how to keep itself afloat. When there are as many Homestuck cosplayers as there are for major animated properties on Nickelodeon, that's a hint that Something Big Is Happening.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:32 PM on July 23, 2012 [40 favorites]


(And apparently my punishment for writing gigantic comments at midnight is a cringe-worthy assortment of typos. Yikes.)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:35 PM on July 23, 2012


I read just about every comic anyone recommends to me. Doesn't it say something that we are at and unprecedented renaissance and they are still so mediocre? In the past couple weeks I've read Fatale, that was ok. Century: 2009, that was ok. I've started My Friend Dahmer, that is ok. Maybe I am biased and just don't like comics but I don't feel any of them are important.

Have you read Asterios Polyp? Pyongyang? Blankets? Daytripper? American Vampire? The currently ongoing series Saga? For something more superhero-flavoured, Madame Xanadu or Ultra: Seven Days?

In that list alone, to continue your "Porky's" analogy, we have a Gondry film, an indie film set in a strange land (I would call it a travelogue, but filmed travelogues in this style haven't in in vogue in decades, and comparing it to National Geographic is horrifically wrong), a 'memoir' film directed by Lee Daniels (he who revels in the tiny moments), a reflective Jeunet, Steven King (literally, here) as processed by Scorsese, another HBO fantasy drama (they're doing well with these), and a feminist, serious sequel to Scott Pilgrim's meta commentary.

What about anything by the ladies mentioned in the article?
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:47 PM on July 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


but people just want to talk about the lack of women at Marvel and DC because unless you work for those companies, your comics are apparently irrelevant.

I think it's important that Marvel and DC have a good gender balance -- both in their output as in their creative staff-- because these companies, along with Archie, are still the face of American comics. They're likely the first comics new readers encounter, perhaps seeking them out after having seen a superhero blockbuster movie or after having become a fan of certain characters through a long running cartoon series. This is as good an example as any of how this works.

Therefore it's in the interest of the industry as a whole that the big two don't push new readers away and it's so madding to see them doing their best to do just that. What we've seen the past year with the New DC is that they've basically recaptured renegade fanboys but no new readers, while Marvel has depended on increasingly shitty crossovers to keep their fans on side. None of this is particularly appealing even to me, and I've read my share of shitty superhero comics in my time I actually bought Youngblood #2.

Yet there is a large audience for properly done Marvel or DC superhero comics and the evidence for that can be found at e.g. Tumblr, where there are huge fan communities for characters like Ms/Captain Marvel or Powergirl or even Dazzler. There is a potential audience there, but it is mostly not catered for.

Also, would it kill either company to look at some of the incredibly talented amateurs online and get them to do some proper comics.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:03 PM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Have you read Asterios Polyp? Pyongyang? Blankets? Daytripper? American Vampire? The currently ongoing series Saga? For something more superhero-flavoured, Madame Xanadu or Ultra: Seven Days?

I'll read them, Some were on my list. I'm not trying to knock comics, I just think they can be better. It is entirely possible there are great titles I haven't found. In the past year I've bought several hundred TPBs. The only one I am certain I would put up there with Citizen Kane as a great achievement is From Hell. Like I said, I might not be the best judge.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:25 PM on July 23, 2012


Related. [sorta NSFW]
posted by chavenet at 11:28 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Funny, just a few days ago I was muttering that I'm tired of articles bemoaning the terrible handling of women in superhero comics that never say "but here are some really good examples" or even "here are some female creators doing kick-ass indy superhero stuff".

Also, I would like to suggest that if Larry Marder finishes "Tales of the Beanworld" it will definitely be an Important Comic Book. This is sadly a bit debatable; his wife died recently. One of the central characters is based on her and I can totally see him NOT WANTING TO GO THERE for a while. Or dying of heartbreak. I'm hoping neither of these happens and that he keeps working on his amazing comic!
posted by egypturnash at 11:49 PM on July 23, 2012


Also, Narrative Priorities, I totally want to get into your version of the comics industry. So far I have a small collection of rejection letters, about half of which praise my work but go on to say it totally doesn't fit with the publisher's goals, or that they just ain't looking for any new people.
posted by egypturnash at 12:28 AM on July 24, 2012


Comics are undergoing an unprecedented renaissance, and the medium has never been more fecund than it is at this moment.

All renaissances have as a precedent the Renaissance. I'm just sayin'.

Slightly more seriously, the article mentions that the figures for female creatives employed by DC is not available, but in terms of top-line creative talent... there's Gail Simone, of course. Amanda Conner on the art side. Ann Nocenti, shortly. Pia Guerra, Becky Cloonan and G Willow Wilson have had series, although they have been indie series.. and there are people like Felicia Henderson, Fiona Staples, Cat Staggs and Nicola Scott, who get work sometimes but aren't series regulars. And then special cases like Yuko Shimizu, who does beautiful covers but is primarily an illustrator, I think, and might not actually want a regular comic book gig.

I don't know. It's early in my bodyclock morning, and I feel like I must be forgetting some important names....
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:54 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cape comics are an interesting issue because they still largely drive the direct market distribution channel (along with Diamond - who is truly a blight on the industry) but it's completely clear that for the most part capes comics are largely run on a "don't lose money" basis rather than trying to grow the readership base. The real money for DC and Marvel (and their big brothers WB and Disney) stems from their awesome market value in terms of licensing and merchandising and their value as tentpole summer block busters.

As a result sales of individual issues of cape books are abysmal outside of the largest franchises (Avengers, Spider-Man, Batman, JL, etc) and the event comics (oh Marvel how I loathe your addiction to events). There are even really good cape books out currently (Hickman's Fantastic Four/FF, Gillen's Journey into Mystery and Uncanny, Azzarello's Wonder Woman are some really solid cape offerings) but they tend to get snowed under by the high volume of schlock. But the real problem is that the big two seem unwilling to cannibalize the direct market by offering cheap digital distribution models. The number of people willing to plunk down $3.99 for 22 pages of decompressed story that's clearly being written for collection into TPB format is really small these days. The number of people that are willing to be hardcore collectors have got to be enormously small. The result is that tons of people have turned to unauthorized digital distribution channels (torrents, various download sites) to meet their needs/desires. If they buy single issues it's generally only on a small number of really cherished titles. Hell in some ways I'm not even sure the big two care because it just gets another consumer willing to plunk down money on other merchandising.

As for how to get more female creators into positions at the big two in order to reform them I'm not sure how to get that to happen long term. It seems like the primary route for success in cape comics stems from the following three items:

1) Are you friends with the EiC/Publisher? There seem to be tons of people that make it into the cape book industry primarily on the strength of personal relationships with someone like Didio and Quesada.
2) Are you on time? With few exceptions it seems like the thing that will absolutely kill your career is being a slow artist or writer. Can you reliably pencil 22 pages a month or write 3-4 books with limited breaks month in and month out? It doesn't matter how genius your work is if they can't release it on a monthly schedule at a minimum it's going to eventually die.
3) Do your books sell a minimum number of copies? It doesn't matter if your book is completely genius if it can't stay above the cancellation line for Marvel and DC it's going to get cut.

The result is that both companies tend to have a very stable core of creators that make a shit ton of money and exercise almost all creative control over the direction of the company. There is also a second tier of creators that kinda lurks around that core and tends to do well. Then there are all the freelancers that can't seem to keep series afloat for any length of time.

Simone is probably the closest among the active female cape writers to getting into the inner circle but her books (especially Batgirl) just seem pretty much completely conventional. There are some other creatives working for Marvel and DC that are doing good work (Nocenti for DC, DeConnick and Immonen for Marvel) but they seem to largely get lesser projects that always seem destined for eventual cancellation. And the chance for reform in the short term seems to be moving farther and farther off due to the massive influx in money coming from other media projects.
posted by vuron at 7:04 AM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


"but here are some really good examples" or even "here are some female creators doing kick-ass indy superhero stuff"

care to name names, egypturnash?

I'm hoping neither of these happens and that he keeps working on his amazing comic! [Beanworld]

Yeah, Beanworld is teh awesome.

Simone is probably the closest among the active female cape writers to getting into the inner circle but her books (especially Batgirl) just seem pretty much completely conventional.

I recently read her initial Birds of Prey run (as collected in 7 trade paperbacks.) There was some good stuff there, and an interesting focus throughout on redeeming the villains instead of just defeating them, but ZOMG most cheesecake ever. DC was apparently wholly committed to the notion that if they were going to have a book starring women, they'd better have boobies everywhere to keep male buyers.

As a Marvel zombie through the later half of the '80's, I read a lot of Nocenti, and didn't like her writing. But that was a long time ago and she could be a different writer now. Devin Grayson did some good superhero work, but it looks like she's abandoned it for greener pastures in videogames.
posted by Zed at 8:52 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


care to name names, egypturnash?

Her own Deconstructing Rita is a great example. :)
posted by Drexen at 9:28 AM on July 24, 2012


Hell if I know, Zed. I don't read superhero comics. These days it seems like half my encounters with the superhero world are articles talking about Catwoman or Starfire or whichever the latest male gaze disaster is that go around Twitter or Metafilter or whatevs. I just figure that the people writing that kind of article actually do give a damn about supers, and I'd really love to see them contrast these disasters with stuff that's actually good at treating women as more than the life-support systems for a pair of tits.

And thanks for that praise, Drexen! n.n
posted by egypturnash at 10:17 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ad hominem: tastes differ, but if you haven't found good literature in the comics/sequesential art medium, you really aren't looking very hard. 20th Century Boys, as just one example, is one of the finest pieces of literature I have ever read.

I'm no DC/Marvel fan myself - I have no interest in superheroes (except when they are being deconstructed ala Watchmen). I've never read any Marvel comics, and the only DC I've read have been their Vertigo titles (great line, headed by a female editor).

But I'm all for improving those superhero comics because, as noted above, they are the backbone of the industry in North America, and a healthy mainstream means that there is all the more infrastructure for the independent and odd titles that I like.

And - maybe more importantly - DC/Marvel are the first exposure that children get to non-humorous comics, and I don't want any more little girls feeling - like I did before finding those other titles - that the only use comics/sequential art had for women was as holding frames for boobies. /being intentionally crude, because that's what the drawings are.
posted by jb at 12:51 PM on July 24, 2012


women in Comics: It Ain't Over
posted by Artw at 12:10 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lorna Innes (who was interviewed for the article) has her own blog post response.

I remember enjoying The Dreamer when I came across it a few years ago, even if I did want the heroine to walk into a library while awake to give herself some context for her dreams. It think it's time to revisit and read what hadn't been drawn when I first found it.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 8:23 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Must Read: Women Write About Comics
posted by Artw at 10:48 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


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