Women in comics and the tricky art of equality

July 21, 2012 | 6:00 a.m.
comicswomen Women in comics and the tricky art of equality

Is the gender balance in the comics world tipping? Click through to read about the challenges and hopes shared by these women in the industry. (Los Angeles Times; DC Comics; Seth Kushner; Handout; Joe Alcorn ; Drew Forehand)

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Sarah Oleksyk: "If you want older people, people of color and more women and girls to read comics, you need to write and publish comics that appeal to them first. It does take a long time, and it's hard to do in this field where there's a quick turnover, and if something doesn't immediately show profits, then it's 'too risky.'" (Credit: Oni Press; Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Hope Larson: "I am a feminist and have no doubts that sexism is real, and pervasive, but I'm tired of being asked so frequently about being a 'woman in comics' and so rarely about my work." (Atheneum Books; Macmillan)

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Amanda Conner: "I do know one or two guys that do unbelievably beautiful, really busty superhero females, but by the same token they also do male characters with really nice packages. ... Power Girl is classic. She's become so identified with her boobs, and people are like, 'When you took over Power Girl, why didn't you shrink her boobs?' And I was like, 'Because then it would become an issue.' Everybody knows that Power Girl has big boobs. Let's acknowledge it, and let's move on to the story." (DC Comics)

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Vera Brosgel: "My generation has had it amazingly good. The comics I grew up reading were Japanese comics, which are still super popular with girls. There was never any lack of comics for me to read that weren't superheroes, and the Internet was full of people that were just starting to do their own work. ... The industry has been kind of a boy's club for a long time, but if [women are] coming out of school, that's who's going to wind up making up the work force. It's just inevitable. So a few decades from now, it's gonna be pretty different." (First Second; Handout)

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Lora Innes: "You go to comic conventions, and there are women everywhere, behind the tables making the art and telling the stories,and also reading. So even though it surely isn't balanced yet, it's come a long way. With things like the big boom that we're in right now in Hollywood with every Marvel comic that comes out being an insane blockbuster event, men and women are enjoying those movies pretty equally, and all of that is starting to change kind of what comics mean." (IDW; Drew Forehand)

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Jessica Abel: "What we really need are more articles about why aren't there more people of color in comics. That's really a huge thing. There are a few, but not very many, and there need to be more. There needs to be more diverse voices. And that's the big scandal, I think, more than women in comics." (Pantheon; Seth Kushner)

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Ann Nocenti: "I think that women do love comics, and a lot of women like superheroes, but perhaps there's something to the fact that the genre itself is an action genre. Big things have to happen, and conflicts have to be resolved, violently, with lots of action. That's the genre. That's the formula. It would be nice if comics could slow it down a little bit. You know, not all conflict has to be resolved with violence, but figure out more meandering ways to work in the form so that perhaps the appeal to women would widen." (Marvel; DC Comics; Marvel)

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Faith Erin Hicks: "Most of the superhero comics written nowadays are written and drawn in a way that, at its very worst, is not pleasant to read as a female reader. Sometimes I'll look at these comics and think, "Have these guys ever seen a woman, like a real woman?" ... I feel like it is an issue, but it is only an issue within a small segment of the comics industry. If you look at all of comics, if you include Web comics or comics from book publishers, you'll see a lot of diversity there. (Faith Erin Hicks; Joe Alcorn)

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Becky Cloonan: "Having more girls create is just going to create more stories for more people to enjoy. And not just for girls. What about the 50-plus crowd and senior citizens? Or really little kids? ... That's why it's so important to have more women, more people in general, more people of color and people of all ages getting into comics, reading them and then creating them. This is a medium that deserves to be made and to be read and to be enjoyed and celebrated." (Vertigo Comics; Dark Horse Comics; Seth Kushner; Becky Cloonan)

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Heidi MacDonald: "There've always been few-and-far-between but very visibile women who were successful. But if you actually just look at what's happened in the last 10 years, with Web comics available and with people able to get their work out there without gatekeepers, there's so many amazing women, and they've being doing great work everywhere." (Vertigo; Handout; International Humor Advisory Council)

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Bobbie Chase: "I have to change my perception, because the old-day wisdom was 'Oh, women just aren't interested. No matter what you do, you're not going to shove comic books down their throats to get them to be interested.' So it has changed, definitely." (DC Comics)

Selina Kyle’s lacy red bra and its ample, curvy contents fill the first panel of “Catwoman” No. 1, published last year when DC Comics relaunched 52 of its most popular titles. By the last page, she’s straddling Batman and spilling out of her leather suit once more.

Catwoman wasn’t DC’s only female superhero to make her “New 52” debut in lingerie. In “Red Hood and the Outlaws” No. 1, extraterrestrial princess Starfire strikes a Playboy-like pose, bursting out of her purple bikini as she propositions Red Hood. And Voodoo, a shape-shifting half-alien hybrid, spends half of her first issue stripping.

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Cover for “Catwoman” No.1 (DC Comics)

Comics blogs buzzed with debate, and critics cried sexism, pointing to the company’s predominantly male creative staff. DC’s rival Marvel Comics often faces similar criticism — the superhero comics genre historically has been a boys’ club.

But a broader look at the world of comics and the women who work there reveals the industry is far more gender-balanced than the superhero fare suggests. Though women still make up a minority of creative talent at Marvel and DC, their influence is growing. And in comics at large, women are on even footing and gaining ground.

“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.”

Women dominate the pages of manga (comics created in Japan), their graphic novels fill the catalogs of small independent publishers, and their Web comics draw millions of eyeballs.

Sarah Oleksyk, whose first graphic novel, “Ivy,” earned her two prestigious Eisner Award nominations, self-published her book in installments before small publisher Oni Press picked it up. Eisner winner Vera Brosgol’s graphic novel “Anya’s Ghost” was published by First Second. Both novels are coming-of-age stories — Ivy is a teenager who runs away from home and Anya a Russian immigrant who struggles to fit in at her high school.

“Teenage boys aren’t the only people with money, and unfortunately I think the mainstream comics juggernaut has just been focusing on this little section of readership for a long time,” Oleksyk said. “There’s this gigantic range of stories being told in indie comics — biographies, nonfiction, every sort of thing. So if you don’t want to read something about crime-fighting superheroes, you have 10,000 other subjects to choose, and most of those are independently published.”

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Faith Erin Hicks amassed a devoted following online for her comic “The Adventures of Superhero Girl.” (Faith Erin Hicks)

Young female comics creators are coming up through the Internet, unhindered by the tastemakers and gatekeepers that guarded comics 30 years ago. Faith Erin Hicks, turned off by mainstream superhero comics, created a strip called “The Adventures of Superhero Girl” about an otherwise ordinary young woman who uses her super-strength to fight crime. The cartoon was printed in the free Halifax, Canada, newspaper the Coast, but it was online that Hicks amassed her devoted following.

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Lora Innes’ “The Dreamer” draws readers who are new to comics. (IDW)

Lora Innes began “The Dreamer” — about a girl whose dreams take her back to the American Revolution — as a Web comic, taking to MySpace to invite teenyboppers and Revolutionary War enthusiast groups to read the comic online. Now, “The Dreamer” is published by IDW, and Innes continues to attract readers who otherwise might not have set foot in a comics shop.

Industry veterans welcome the influx of female talent and are happy to bid farewell to the days of being grossly outnumbered by men at comic conventions.

“I look at my classes, and it’s not uncommon that there are a few more women than men,” said Jessica Abel, author of the graphic novel “La Perdida.” Abel has taught undergraduate cartooning courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “It’s also not uncommon that they’re the best students in class.”

MacDonald, the Eisner-nominated comics journalist and editor of comics blog The Beat, points to the stark contrast between today’s comics industry and that of the 1980s and ’90s, when she helped start Friends of Lulu, a nonprofit promoting female readership and participation in comics. The group ceased operating last year.

“I think part of the reason why it faded away is that people were getting their own gigs,” MacDonald said. “The reason for the organization kind of dried up. There was a lot more opportunity, and there wasn’t so much need for it.”

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Time Magazine named Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant” one of the top 10 fiction books of 2011. (Drawn and Quarterly)

MacDonald points to the success of cartoonists such as MacArthur grant recipient Alison Bechdel, whose graphic memoir “Fun Home” was named the best book of 2006 by Time magazine, and “Hark! A Vagrant” author Kate Beaton, who started by publishing her cartoons online and now draws some of the longest book-signing lines at comic conventions.

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.

“They consistently make editorial decisions that seem designed to alienate women,” Abel said. “So it’s self-reinforcing. If you’re constantly straight-arming women, women aren’t going to read them. If they don’t read them, they don’t grow up imagining them. If they don’t grow up imagining them, they’re not going to make them.”

Though she disagrees with the practice, MacDonald says she understands why the so-called Big Two cater so heavily to teenage boys and men.

“They’re just terrified of getting the girl cooties on there and losing their audience,” she said. “Marvel and DC, they have a different goal, a different corporate mandate. Certainly for Marvel, they are absolutely part of Disney’s great master plan to have more boy readers…. For DC, as part of the corporate structure, that is more where they fit in.”

But even in the superhero world, new artists and more women are being brought in, partly in response to fan concerns.

“It’s definitely been a push,” said Bobbie Chase, editorial director for DC. “We’re pursuing people all the time who could be new voices for comic books, but it’s still going to be a predominantly male industry. I don’t think that has to change, but we can certainly make a much better balance.”

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The Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman and Starfire (who leads the way on this “Red Hood and the Outlaws” cover) are a few of DC’s heroines. (DC Comics)

Chase doesn’t apologize for unrealistically sexy portrayals of DC’s heroines, but she emphasizes context.

“You’re doing idealized, muscled characters, so obviously they don’t look realistic, and they’re in costume,” Chase said, noting that the real measure of progress is in the personalities of such characters as Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Catwoman. “They’re not cheesecakey women books. They’re strong female characters.”

Chase points out that 25% of the editorial staff is women. Numbers for the creative staff were not available, but she said that more women are joining the New 52 roster in the coming months.

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(DC Comics)

One of those women is Ann Nocenti, a veteran comics writer recently recruited to take over “Catwoman.”

“I think they reached out to me partly for that reason … as an effort to bring female perspective into comics,” Nocenti said.

But toning down Catwoman’s sexuality is not part of her plan, she said.

“She puts on a skintight leather black cat suit with one zipper,” Nocenti said. “Do you know anyone who dresses like that? If you did, you would assume that they were loving their sexuality. … I think there should always be intentionality to the sex in a character.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Becky Cloonan, a young comics creator who has distinguished herself with an edgy artistic style.

“I think about character a lot,” said Cloonan. “I’ll sit down and sketch for pages and pages until I get just the right face and body type…. All women have different bodies, and it’s really fun to try to match that with a character.”

Her work — for Marvel, Vertigo, Tokyopop and Dark Horse as well as self-published titles — falls on both sides of the divide between indie and superhero comics. Cloonan stresses the importance of growing a diverse readership to make earning a living in comics feasible for more people.

She also celebrates how far women have come. When she began reading comics as a child, she said she could count on her fingers the number of female-created titles on comic shop shelves.

“You can definitely see a change in the people creating, and that’s going to show a change in the readership,” she said. “I think more girls should be involved in doing superheroes, but I think there’s going to be a tipping point…. It might take them five or 10 years to break in to the industry, but I think you’re going to see a real shift in the next few years.”

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Sarah Oleksyk, author of the graphic novel “Ivy,” works on a comic in her Burbank apartment. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

One thing that the superhero creators and indie creators can agree on is that they’re tired of talking about “women in comics.”

“It’s a running joke at this point, I think,” Brosgol said. “There’ve been so many panels at comic conventions and articles, and they’re becoming a little bit awkward because the people on the panels don’t have any horror stories to relate. They’re just sort of staring at whoever asked the question.”

And that in itself might be the best sign of progress.

“I can’t address it enough,” MacDonald said. “I think the time has come to stop saying, ‘Oh, my God, there are women in comics!’ and just be like, ‘Here’s some really cool stuff.’ And really just talk about the work and not the issue, because it’s just not an issue the way it used to be.”

– Noelene Clark

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Comments


18 Responses to Women in comics and the tricky art of equality

  1. Linda Hunsaker says:

    Corinna Bechko of Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes and Heathentown is one of the best female writers in comics today.

  2. Jay Lender says:

    Changing the gender balance behind the scenes is only part of the puzzle. Female creators may be more likely to create more politically acceptable portrayals of women, but we cannot expect or demand that of them. If they're unwilling to provide the images and ideas that SELL then they won't get the work! So what do we want more? Gender balance behind the scenes or in the material?

    What really needs to happen is a broadening of the audience for comics. But what person who has never read a graphic novel will go to a comic book store to find one? We must get comics out of comic-book stores and into the general literary population–book stores. This is impossible in the rapidly vanishing book store ecosystem, but online is the great equalizer. With a proper web link, even a comic book sequestered in an online comics-only store feels as though it's right in front of everyone.

    And I happen to have just such a link. If I may toot my own horn here, I'd refer your readers to my graphic novel, DUSTER; a story about a Texas war-widow-turned-crop-duster-pilot who must protect her daughter and her town from a band of Nazis escaping through the US just after VE Day. It's a big, fat, run & gun action story on the surface… but the subtext is about the creation of the Modern American Woman who can work, raise a family and make her own choices in life. We have several prominent female characters, all wrestling with what their role will be in a post-war America. There's no magic, no spandex, no gratuitous sexuality, and it was written and drawn by guys–progress!

    But Duster is not available in comic book stores. We couldn't get it in there if we tried–not in numbers high enough to justify the production costs. Their customers are simply not interested in the material. But if you are, you can download a 40-page preview now from:
    http://duster.me

    If you're inspired, you can contribute to the production of the book through Kickstarter. There are only 59 hours left and we have not yet reached our goal. I'd like to prove to the industry that there's a market for material like this…
    –Jay

  3. Patrick OBrien says:

    Noelene,

    Enjoyed this article! Very creative writing. Very entertaining.

    Partick

  4. @seefilms says:

    I totally agree with Partick. Fantastic job Ms. Clark.

  5. Alekaslammed says:

    No mention of Colleen Doran? Worked on everything from Wonder Woman to Captain America to Sandman, and artist of the new Irish immigration graphic novel "Gone to Amerikay": it's a masterpiece. Her graphic novel "A Distant Soil" was pioneering work in comics. Teen girl writing and drawing a graphic novel entirely on her own in the 1980's. Very friendly to her fans. Easy to find her work online, too.

  6. h1pnerd says:

    Small nerd niggle — Starfire does not "lead the Outlaws" as stated in the caption. The book is titled "Red Hood and the Outlaws." The leader is the aforementioned "Red Hood."

    I also thought it was strange that you brought Starfire up without mentioning that they basically turned her into an alien sex doll that the men in the book pass around like the was an interactive porn DVD. It's pretty reprehensible.

  7. Reblogged this on Jimmy's Pop Culture Blog and commented:
    Great article about women in comics from the LA Times Hero Complex.

  8. lexivore says:

    I don't care what Starfire has been like in the past.

    After her awesome younger ingenue incarnation in the HUGELY popular animation series Teen Titans, to change her back into … that … *yuk* male fantasy for drooling morons is just pathetic.

    Is it bad when Warner Bros has consistently done better work with characters then their originating companies for the past 15 years or so?

  9. @fredseibert says:

    OK, it's my turn to put in a word for a favorite woman comics creator, Grace Randolf, and her new series Superbia, drawn by Russel Dauterman, published by Boom! (http://frdr.us/Pm2i77). And, I might as well mention her YouTube comics channel, Think About The Ink (http://www.youtube.com/user/THINKAboutTheINK).

  10. Nicole says:

    Fascinating!

  11. Jinky Coronado says:

    Dang. wish they'd called me. I've been writing and drawing my own color series BANZAI GIRL for the past decade with Sirius and Arcana (it's now serialized on Keenspot.com), drew multiple volumes of Meg Cabot's AVALON HIGH, and am now also drawing EXPOSURE on Keenspot. I love creating comics for a mostly male audience, though I get a lot of mail from female readers. It's a good business to be in, though I feel sometimes we female creators get overlooked, particularly if we easily adapt to the "guy's way" of drawing comics.

    — Jinky Coronado

  12. Aaron says:

    Bobbi Chase emphasizes "context"? Well, Voodoo is a stripper, therefore, she strips.

    Okay, well, have you thought about changing the context? Maybe that's your problem. Your frame of reference is such that you're unwilling to modify or manipulate the context itself, you end up shoehorning yourself into exhibiting certain character traits regardless of who is drawn on the pages.

    • Blakeney says:

      So agree. “You’re doing idealized, muscled characters, so obviously they don’t look realistic, and they’re in costume”. Are those Starfire's muscles? She sure keeps 'em in a funny place. Also women heroes sure have some interesting fighting poses. Good spin there, Bobbi.

  13. Well says:

    hmm…this is not a new topic of discussion. What the author falls short on is really acknowledging that female authors, female characters/depictions/subject matter, and female readers are three separate gears turning at once. The conversation seems to flip a lot without much resolution. Cat Woman half naked and a lady author writing about everyday life are two different conversations. In fact superhero comics are a separate genre so are you addressing that or what is your point? Most women write romance, memoirs, or 'quirky' everyday life stories and when people think comics they think superhero from my personal experience and observation. As far as subject matter for women readers it's either vamped up sex hero or a youngish white lady and her cat and boyfriend.

    The bigger issue is not preaching to the choir to other women about females in comics but what is being perpetuated in young boys and men about women. Draw the breasts more naturally so they don't grow up with a warped idea and standard of the female form. The quote about the male and female forms being equally exaggerated seems to shed some light. Make the characters more varied in personality and role contribution so they aren't so one dimensional. There are still huge disparities in gender regarding character dimension and form in the super hero genre in titles catering to BOYS regarding women.

  14. Joe says:

    While this article is correct in its observations regarding the artistic depiction of female characters in superhero comic, I am not sure I would say "sexism". Sexism implies unfair or imbalanced treatment. Any superhero comic book that I have ever opened up, provides just as much 2-dimensional eye candy for a potential female reader as it does for any male: handsomely-drawn men, with rippling muscles, bursting out of their torn shirts. If someone is complaining that they should draw women with more realistically-sized breast .. why is no one complaining that male heroes should be likewise de-muscularized ? It's fantasy. Entertainment.

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