Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Lack of Ladies: Creators, Characters, And Readers

“You have a generation of girls who have grown up with this stuff and view it as a natural part of culture. You’ve had three ‘Spider-Man’ movies and ‘X-Men’ movies since they’ve been growing up. You’ve had ‘Harry Potter’ books and movies. And this generation has gotten it in a more concentrated level than I had as a kid. I might have had a ‘Superman’ movie every few years. But it was still a bit of a learning process.”
-Jeff Katz, former Fox movie executive
And yet here we are, readership shrinking and no closer to expanding our niche market. Hollywood has been quicker to recognize the mass appeal of various "nerd culture" properties, but the comic book industry itself is taking its time creating products for the growing female market. There are many creators, fans, and retailers that don't treat female readers like an elusive / non-existant unicorn, but when it comes to the big two, the driving force behind production is short term sales. In an interview with Comics Alliance discussing recent cancellations at the House of Ideas (and the lack of female led titles as a result), Marvel editors didn't shy away from saying low sales were the main reasons behind the cuts. Interestingly they credit these low sales with a perceived lack of interest from fans in titles that are not part of the over-arching stories of the Marvel U. She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman; these are characters that have had roles in events from Civil War to Dark Reign, yet readers did not deem their solo titles "must-reads" and each have been canceled. Could it be there may be more reasons for the low sales? Readers only speak with what they buy, and I get that Marvel is a business and they are simply making more of what sells. What I have a problem with accepting is the fact that they are the ones that decide what to put on the shelves. This company, with a vast catalog of characters would rather give us the same "top tier characters" in triplicate than give an underused or new character a solo series. 


"The problem, I think, is that there are so few of our female characters have achieved the iconic status that translates into sure-fire sales. While Sue Storm and Ororo Monroe have high Q-ratings due to their roles in iconic monthlies -- Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men, respectively -- they function as parts of an ensemble cast."
-Axel Alonso, Marvel Editor-in-Chief

Here's an example of "self fulfilling prophecy". A company deems their own product irrelevant, stops making it, then wonders why these characters don't have wider recognition? And what does all of this have to do with the readership, you ask? Well female readers aren't an insignificant part of the audience, though there is no definitive data on the subject. A recent survey undertaken by Graphic Policy's Brett Schenker came to the conclusion that roughly 25% of the comic book reading population is female. He acquired these statistics by data mining various social networks and finding individuals that identified themselves as comic book fans, so it' certainly not the final say on the readership. However, it is refreshing to be able to quote a source, any source, that uses a statistic larger than 10% to describe the female readership. Anyone that reads comic books, works in a store, or attends comic conventions will tell you the number of female fans is certainly larger than 10%, an almost certainly outdated statistic. The real question is, why isn't it larger than 25%? Keep in mind as well, this survey does not take into account what these readers are buying, or how much they are spending. Anyone resistant to changing the landscape of mainstream comics will argue that the women that do read comics aren't interested in superhero titles, so why change them. We really don't have the numbers to quote one way or the other what women are buying because no one has invested in finding out. But as a female reader, I can say with certainty, some of us do enjoy books of the fights and tights variety, and no, we don't all have an interest in manga.

I don't base my purchasing decisions on whether or not female characters are featured in a book, but there are plenty of female characters that are not being used (or are being poorly written).  Characters like Mary Jane, Storm, Jessica Jones, and Jean Grey. Talk about not using what you've got! Was the loss of one of Marvel's few recognizable (and bankable) female characters worth the immediate sales in killing her? If I want to read a well-made superhero book featuring a female character I literally can't find one title in Marvel's entire line. I'm thankful that at least DC has given several of their female characters their own titles, and it helps that they are well made (I wouldn't read them if they weren't; see Batwoman, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl). I am certain of the fact that there are plenty of male and female fans alike  that would like to see more solo female led titles, and not because it would be more realistic. The current state of mainstream comics is already pretty realistic in representing the gender inequality of our society. Less than 1% of fortune 500 companies have female CEO's. 16.6% of our congress members are women. If comics serves as escapist fantasy, this aspect is depressingly close to reality. If the superhero genre reflects what we would hope to achieve with great abilities and gifts, you better be damn sure there would be just as many women putting on capes as men.
"I think we have to stop thinking of it as a quota thing and think of it as a common-sense thing."
-Dan Harmon, creator of NBC's Community, on hiring more female writers
That brings us to our final exploration of the lack of ladies, and that is in the creation of the comics themselves.  The percentages are dismal for female writers and artists working for the big two, though it is slightly more favorable when it comes to editorial staff. Neither company can boast anything close to a reasonable ratio. This without a doubt contributes to the lack of diversity amongst their comic book content as well. Imagine if for every "top selling" character with three titles, at least one had a female creator. Each character would be written or drawn by a creative team that had a uniquely different perspective from the other offerings on the shelf. I understand the challenges these publishers face as well. They have a product that has been predominantly enjoyed by male fans for the last 20 or 30 years. Those fans have grown up, and the few that decided to become comic book creators reflect the readership. When DC and Marvel say they simply hire the best of the talent that approaches them, to an extent I believe this to be true. In essence it reflects just how long the industry has failed to connect with a female audience. It is a vicious cycle that will continue without serious thought and intentional change. Independent comics, specifically creator owned works, do afford more opportunities for female writers and artists to break into the industry, especially if what they are doing does not resemble what DC and Marvel currently create (and the big two are only interested in creating more of the same at the moment). But comic books are dominated by these large companies. I believe the rise of independent titles will influence change within the genre of superhero titles and eventually a more diverse product will result in order to compete. But until that happens, the health of the direct market depends on how well these two publishers do. If they fail to engage their current fans and bring new ones into comic book stores, all of the movies, cartoons, and merchandising in the world won't keep brick and mortar stores in business. The well recognized brands of Marvel and DC are not nearly as inviting to a wider audience as they could be, and that isn't good for fans and retailers that want to see this industry grow.

Coming up in the next segment we will explore how the portrayal of female characters contributes to the uphill battle of attracting more readers, and keeping the ones we currently have. Enjoy more reading at the links below!


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