I was asked not too long ago what was something I was proud of writing on The Beat, and it’s actually something I didn’t write. This post by political communications specialist Brett Schenker entitled Market Research Says 46.67% of Comic Fans are Female from February, was pretty groundbreaking. Why am I mentioning a six month old post? Well, people continue to quote it when they look for demographic information on comics readership, and it represents a solid benchmark in an area where there is shockingly little research. Schenker’s research via Facebook, which he’s graciously presented here, has been quoted in numerous articles and yesterday it was referenced in this Time.Com piece on the new female Thor. I tweeted it again and it got a whole new set of reactions on twitter from people who hadn’t seen it the first time.
But before talking about that let’s go back to Lady Thor. In the official Marvel PR about the new book, this bombshell was dropped:
THOR is the latest in the ever-growing and long list of female-centric titles that continues to invite new readers into the Marvel Universe. This female THOR is the 8th title to feature a lead female protagonist and aims to speak directly to an audience that long was not the target for Super Hero comic books in America: women and girls.
Now that coupled with the announcement of the book on The View indicates, ever to subtly, that this books was being marketed as something that actual women who are non-comics-averse might be curious about. I’ve seen some suggestions that there were big political machination behind all this, and I’m sure there’s a story there, but we’ll take it at face value for now. As I’ve indicated before, Marvel/Disney are big on customer info, and about a year ago they started being way more female reader friendly, so obviously something is happening.
Sue at DCWKA took the Marvel statement as the occasion for a much deserved victory lap:
Say what? I’m sorry what was that? Is Marvel actually saying they want female readers? That they are now targeting female readers?
Why yes they are.
It’s almost worth the amount of trolling, attacks, rape threats and other shit I’ve experienced to see this.
Of course, DC Comics also seems to be finally finding the female audience worthy of their attention. Nothing as clear cut as Marvel did above but the recent Batgirl respin and Gotham Academy are clearly going after that audience and I was told by folks close to those books that women are definitely are a target.
But now? Something has changed at both publishers.
Is it real? Will it last? Who knows?
But I will say I am enjoying it.
It’s true that two years ago I felt that the place of superheroes as the great hope for boys entertainment at both WB and Disney meant that aiming them squarely at the male demographic was in their corporate interests. Since then, female consumership of all kinds of media has become a lot more obvious via social media and so maybe a dollar is a dollar. (See Box-Office Woes: Age and Gender Gap Helping Fuel Summer Decline.)
It is also possible that superheroes are just SO IRRESISTIBLE to EVERYONE that even girl cooties can’t destroy boy interest in them. The success of Marvel’s movies would seem to be the prime evidence of that.
Anyway, yesterday was a busy day but I took a peek back at Brett’s original post and scanned the comments, which are a fleet of brittle ocean liners of denial in a troubled sea of floating demographic icebergs. These comments also aroused a new round of response on twitter, from dismay to agreement. But in the comments a matter was broached by Kurt Busiek that is far more telling, to me anyway: why the female readership of the comics medium dwindled so much in the 80s that it’s taken us 30 years to admit that it might actually exist.
Girls have always read comics.
They read early newspaper strips. They read early superhero comics. They certainly read romance comics and humor comics in the 40s and 50s and on through the 60s. (Trina Robbins‘s research deiscovered readership statements from the 50s that showed a bit more 50% of the comics readership was female.) They read Archies. They read later newspaper strips, in fact they read them to this day.
But of course, in the 70s, the newsstand distribution system for cheap comics dissolved, to be replaced by the direct sales market, a business run by passionate fans of mostly superhero comics, a group that was heavily male, as early fanzines show. The other day John Jackson Miller did a major analysis of Archie sales through the years (which got picked up by Fivethirtyeight.com, go John!) and it included this chart of Archie newsstand sales, according to Post Office statements:
Not too much to argue with there. Without newsstands and their broad, non fanatic readership, Archie sales struggled. And since the readership was significantly female, you can see right there where the girls went away. We were left with a period, lasting to this day although drifting away as the dawn breaks up a fog, in which a factual situation that was demonstrably historically true—women reading comics—simply became nonexistent.
Scary, isn’t it?
I’m not sure why it is so, so important that the comics medium remain a boys club to so many men. Guys, you can read what you want and no one will ruin it just by liking Lucy Knisley or Moto Haggio. I think it’s fine to have boy-focused material like Batman or Spider-Man or whatever, as long as you don’t use boy focused material as “proof” that women don’t read comics. It’s like saying that just because guys overwhelmingly like Transformers movies, women don’t like any movies. It’s exactly like that.
Luckily, as I’ve said here many times, the internet has revealed some truths that gatekeeper media did its best to suppress. So now we see cartooning schools overwhelmingly female, conventions about 40% female, bestselling female cartoonists, award winning female cartoonists, popular female characters, and lots of women who demonstrably provably read and enjoy the comics medium. Are the numbers in Brett’s Facebook research writ in granite? No. But since FB mostly exists as a giant marketing tool, it’s kind of what this sort of research was made to do. It isn’t voodoo, it isn’t lies, it isn’t damn lies, it’s just statistics. Statistics which are generally born out by other demographics that we’re seeing.
— Graphic Policy (@graphicpolicy) July 16, 2014
— Graphic Policy (@graphicpolicy) July 16, 2014
Perhaps most amusing about all this is concern trolling by those who claim to want to get comics back to “the mainstream” by getting back on “newsstands.” I got news for ya hub, we have a new newsstand it’s called digital and the mainstream—just as it was for the first 70 years or so of the comics medium’s existence in the US—appeals to a fairly broad demographic.
Just to finish up, Brett is working on updated research which I’ll be presenting at this panel at San Diego, where Rob Salkowivz will also be presenting new demographic info from Eventbrite. Come on out to find out if they match up!
The Future of Geek
Will comics’ takeover of pop culture continue, or has geek peaked? Industry-watchers Heidi MacDonald (The Beat), Rob Salkowitz (Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture), and Tim Beyers (Motley Fool) follow the money in conventions, movies, and publishing to forecast the future of the fandom business. John Siuntres (Word Balloon podcast) moderates.
Friday July 25, 2014 1:00pm – 2:00pm
Image via Superdames
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.