It would almost be self-aggrandizing to praise Noelene Clark’s recent women in comics piece in the LA Times, since I’m quoted so extensively in it, but I’m happy to say that the bulk of the cartoonists she spoke with were also proponents of the idea that I often promote here: women have already had massive, historic success in the comics industry, and at this point those outlets that aren’t adapting to the wave of female readers and creators are truly out of step with the times, and not the trendsetters.
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.”
As long as I’m here, I’d like to expand on my comments in the piece on just WHY the Big Two are so lagging behind the rest of the comics (and the publishing and even film worlds) in catering to female nerds and readers.
While I enjoy the heroic efforts on the part of DCWKA’s Sue, Kyrax2, Geek Mom and the squadron of superhero suffragettes out there, and support most of their points, I feel their efforts are pre-doomed. Sure it’s obvious that a character like Stephanie Brown—a character with a younger,more vocal following—deserves to be featured in her own book. Sure it’s obvious from the licensing alone that a Wonder Woman book aimed at young girls would find an audience.
And yet despite the money left on the table, embarrassing publicity, and public fist shaking, DC’s treatment of the Girl-Wonder.org faction over the years has ranged from tone-deafness to active pigtail pulling. And it’s systemic. In last fall’s reader survey, DC went out of its way to choose the lower of two figures for the female readership. This isn’t an accident. It’s a program.
Why? Well, all conspiracy theories, corporate DNA and the WB’s own woman problems aside, the simple fact is that on a meta level, DC Entertainment produces entertainment for boys. That’s its place within Warners, its demographic slot and I’m sure at some point Diane Nelson has overtly been tasked with keeping the boy audience engaged for films starring Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern.
We may think this kind of pigeonholing is stupid, but in a world run by branding, the message matters. By addressing female readers (and also younger readers), DC risks alienating its core audience of teenaged boys and men 25-35.
Marvel has much the same problem, although in some ways it’s more acute and in others, much more loosely policed. As mentioned in any story on the Marvel/Disney union, Disney has NO problem with girls. The Princess line is one of the most successful licensing programs of all times, and has a virtual monopoly on providing iconic characters for the female youth of the world. Where Disney has always lagged behind is with younger boys, and decade after decade, fix after fix was sought, from rebranding Disney XO, to buying the Power Rangers to…buying Marvel. And with that they have probably solved the problem for all times, as THE AVENGERS film franchise showed.
But it isn’t necessarily natural. Left to its own devices, as a corporation, Disney always steers girl. The Marvel Comics Universe has to be kept separate from Disney’s normal skewing towards Dazzler: The Musical, and Ororo, Princess of the Veldt.
Although the corporate mandate is much clearer for Marvel—and the danger of straying from it more perilous—from an internal standpoint they seem to have fewer worries about the comics actually appealing to women, as Jeff Parker’s recent plea to accept Red She Hulk shows. Marvel, the comics company, is simply less uptight about female fans driving away the boys, as the traditional high female readership for the X-Men, and female movie-goers embrace of THE AVENGERS shows.
And female fans CAN drive away boys with their cooties. Rob Salkowitz has a piece about the recent Comic-Con and tensions between traditional con goers and the Camp Twilight crowd:
Camp Breaking Dawn is a concrete example that even in the traditionally masculine world of fandom, girl nerds can outperform boy nerds when it comes to demonstrating support for their pop culture obsessions. Through their numbers and their visible presence, they are forcing their tastes into the conversation, regardless of the disdain of purists.
Mainstream comics publishers could tap into this audience and make their offerings more female-friendly by cutting down on gratuitously offensive characterizations of women in their books, or perhaps by employing more female creators. But current evidence suggests that publishers see this as a zero-sum game: cut out the cheesecake and you’ll alienate the proven audience of male readers— and why risk that? Or perhaps the creative decision makers are simply the products of the same culture as their audience.
As asinine as this attitude is, it exists, it informs million-dollar decisions and that’s how it is. Why it is that some boys and young men are so insecure in their world view that any deviation from it leaves them repelled, I leave to the PhDs out there. But the truth is, as much as some individuals within each system would wish to deviate, the mandate to both Marvel and DC from their corporate owners is to be for boys. Period.
Thus, I would much rather spend my energy enjoying the work of the hundreds of successful female creators outside the Big Two than hope that corporate culture will change very much on this point. That doesn’t mean that I won’t point out the occasional crotchleg, or mock particularly short-sighted decisions, but…I’m not under any illusion that anything will change any time soon, either. The good part of all this is that alternative venues exists and that’s where the future of the comics industry lies.
As long as we’re talking about all this, here’s one last thing to get off my chest. I’m so glad that former D&Q design manager Jessica Campbell was as outraged as I was by John Carlin’s comments on a panel a few years ago. I’m going to run a much longer than usual excerpt because it could function as a mini-essay in itself:
A few years ago when I attended a panel discussion between Dan Nadel and John Carlin (curator of the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition), moderated by Robert Storr, I was struck by how much of the conversation revolved around the role of women in comics. I was already familiar with the controversy surrounding the fact that Carlin’s exhibition, created with the explicit intent of solidifying the “comics canon,” had not included any female creators, though this controversy had at points felt blown out of proportion. Then, upon being asked directly about his chose to omit female cartoonists, Carlin claimed that to include any would have been “tokenism.” Certainly he acknowledged that there exist and have existed female cartoonists, though he said (perhaps I am paraphrasing slightly) “there has never existed a female Milton Caniff.” What he meant, really, was there has never been a female “master” of American comics (a telling choice of words to be sure).
His position is not dissimilar to what was for a long time the status quo in art history, and something I once read by art historian Nanette Salomon, that “the ‘exceptional’ woman artist may be one of the most insidious means of undermining the likelihood of women entering the creative arts,”* seems particularly relevant to both Carlin and the medium. In comics, as in art history, when women’s artistic production is described, it is very often qualified by their sex, thus highlighting its otherness and exceptionality. By consistently qualifying the work of female artists by their gender, one implies that somehow the fact of her gender is remarkable. The implication is that her femaleness is her handicap and that her work does not fit in to the history of art but is, rather, an anomalous exception to it.
The canon of comics, still new and somewhat amoebic when compared to the canon of art history, seems very much predicated on the idea of artistic lineage and the “mentor/prodigy” relationship perpetuated by traditional art history. Carlin’s statement about the impossibility of a “female Caniff” highlights another point of Salomon’s: that comparing all female artists to some kind of greater male counterpart does them a disservice. This idea, that women artists must always be tied to a male artist, reinforces a binary system where one is always prized over another. This, too, hints to why I was so disappointed by the discourse surrounding Carlin’s exhibition. Certainly, there was a level of outrage at his lack of inclusion (no female creators, one black creator and only two female historians in contrast with around thirty white male creators and historians), but the strategy that people used to deal with this was to provide a list potential female creators who could have been included. This form of rebuttal ultimately kind of reinforced binarism, since it was refuted by exhibitions supporters by comparing these female creators to their superior male “counterparts.”
Watching this panel at the time—and thinking about it since—this blatant example of how doors stay shut continues to annoy me and shines as an example of why eternal vigilance is the price of inclusion. One privileged while male’s “token” is another outsider’s “pioneer.” As history—and Noelene Clark’s article reinforces—we’ve already had many, many pioneers, so many that the challenge is no longer finding the trail, but rather traveling it in always better and swifter fashion.
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.