This brief video of creator Darwyn Cooke, captured at the Fan Expo Canada last weekend, managed to capture all the “grumpy old Eisner winner” complaints of those who would wish comics to return to a more noble time. Coming out swinging against anal rape, Cooke also had some sharp words for Kate Kane’s reboot as a beautiful lipstick lesbian. This has understandably gotten some heat, especially from gay comics bloggers, but in a statement at 4th Letter, Cooke explains himself:
I see this little sound bite is making the rounds and there seems to be some confusion regarding some of what I said.
My comment about making a character a lesbian has outraged some so I thought the following clarification might help-
Consider this- After sixty years of being a lesbian, a beloved character is made straight for sales for creative purposes- wouldn’t that be wrong as well?
I think gay characters are an important and welcome part of any contemporary expression. What I want is to see creators and publishers creating new characters that are gay and lesbian, and spend the decades needed creating and supporting stories about these characters. It strikes me as opportunistic and somewhat wrongheaded to take someone else’s creation and after decades of established character action make that drastic a change.
I’ve always believed that if another creator’s character can’t bear the spectrum of expression I need to reach, then I don’t use that character. Find another or create a new one.
If you tie my comment into the context of the other things I’m saying, I’m also not sure what the corporate motivation is for such changes. If we look at the reading demographics for superhero comics, this becomes an intriguing topic.
Given Cooke’s own creation of unselfconsciously gay characters, homophobia isn’t his problem.
The comments have, however, codified the frequent moaning of those who find today’s comics too dark and nihilistic and pandering to the base desires of the readership, and occasioned much comment, from Valerie D’Orazio, David Brothers and lengthy comment threads everywhere. It’s important to note that Cooke is a creator of such talent and stature that he’s been able to create comics to his own tastes — The New Frontier — and so he puts his pen where his mouth is. However he also brings up some ideas that need to be reexamined. For instance, the “45-year-old comics reader” who supposedly rules the roost.
While that’s not far from the age of
Dan DiDio, Joe Quesada, Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso
— the men who actually control Marvel and DC’s outputs — I’m not sure the FYOV* is really the arbiter of comics taste any more. For one thing, they are literally dying off. For another, despite all the predictions of myself and every other comics pundit that comics abandonment of entry level books in the 90s and onwards would result in the death of the comics reader…it didn’t happen. Their numbers may be smaller, but the regular comics reader seems to be evenly spread between the 18-35 demo and older these days. (Anyone have any better demo info than my vague observations? Torsten?)
Indeed, if you are looking for archetypes, Geoff Johns, a mere sprig of a lad at 37, more closely resembles the “typical” male superhero comics buyer. And I would hazard a guess that price point is the biggest problem they have with today’s comics, although being stuck reading the same thing is another problem. But whatever and whoever they are, the problem is playing to the base — readership levels are flat.
Along those lines, several other salvos for a wider vision of the comics industry have been released of late. Gail Simone makes a good argument for demographic diversity:
Don’t be afraid, industry people. You already know how to tell great stories. All you have to do is take a moment to realize, as many of the most successful people in comics and film and prose already have, that the audience is a lot more diverse than you have been told over and over. And they WANT to like your stories.
(Although curmudgeonly Tom asks for specifics, not calls to action
But in this case, I wonder if we’re not at the point where this advice needs to come with specific initiatives attached — or at least a bit of nudge in some tangible direction. Is anyone not some Internet dunderhead or super-defensive current steward of the status quo or corporate creepo going to disagree that women are an important comics audience and one that needs to be appreciated and cultivated? I kind of doubt it. But what gets us from A to B here? What needs to stop, and what needs to start?
I’d say that far from being glossed over, the idea of how to market to the sizable body of female comics readers has been pretty well covered: books for young girls based on characters already being merchandised to them (Supergirl, Wonder Woman), non-rapey stories in books with proven readerships, soap opera and YA books by women for women, and so on.)
§ Chris Butcher has a retail-based look at the ideal of a more diverse audience:
So I’ve been working the first floor a little more, and the customer for comics is, frankly, completely different than we think it is. Sure, I just sold a copy of SCARLETT #1 by Bendis and Maleev to a dude wearing a Superman t-shirt, but before that I sold a copy of Gabrielle Bell’s CECIL & JORDAN and a Shintaro Kago import-manga to a 20-something girl and before her, I sold Sfar’s LITTLE VAMPIRE and DUNGEON ZENITH 2 & 3 to a dad and his two kids, cuz all of them are in love with those books. A guy today dropped a few hundred bucks on PictureBox and D&Q books. Guy approaching the cash right now has the work of Ken Dahl, Kevin Cannon, and Kevin Huizenga in his hands. Another lady came down the stairs with an armful of McKean, Seinkewicz, and Mack just now. Working the first floor, you get this picture of balance in the medium, and it’s a balance that heavily favours good, interesting, and ambitious works.
In terms of a bold, diverse creatively satisfying range of work, comics are at an all time high. The average READERSHIP LEVEL of these works is, however, modest and showing even more modest growth.
We all know that digital delivery is the road to greater exposure. But making sure the comics are actually appealing to readers once they get that exposure is the other problem we all need to address.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.