jill trent science sleuth

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.

Two years ago Heidi McDonald wrote a great story  (that I disagreed with) about how Marvel and DC would never truly [target] female readers.

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.

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
Room 28DE


Image via Superdames


  1. Hay Heidi,

    @bencomics here. A few more thoughts from my side of the conversation over on Twitter. You do an excellent job of referencing a number of people’s perspective that have informed my own (including yours). While anecdotally aware of this issue all my life, Trina was the first source who spelled it out for me.

    I totally didn’t get how old Brett’s story was. Thanks for the clarity!

    I think I remember you and Sue and my pal Kelly discussing your article she referenced in her victory lap. I think I remember, because I think I got irate when listening to it mentioned on 3 Chicks. You maybe waning, but let me help push you in the right direction.

    In daily life, as in Comics it irritates me to no end when people use an assumption of interest based on gender. It not as if, I don’t appear to follow the same patterns as others, often I do. However, I was brought up in a time, place, family, community, among friends, that rejected the status quo and strived to embrace feminism, racial equality, sexual orientation equality and cultural equality, individualism!…unfortunately they forgot to truly embrace equitable wealth distribution…whoops! This environment and foundation made it possible for my true nature and interest to take shape. This was important, because it contributes directly to ability to be objective, invoative, confident…an effective contributor to society, survive and end my day relatively happy. Not easy given the world we live in (even for us white skinned males).

    The result of the process, once outside the bubble of my upbringing is internal comfort and external observations of interesting, but bizarre assumptions that some (read most) wonderful people still take. It get really old explaining away the trivial things I like or telling others…it’s fine…I am totally OK with this situation…because I am a male…we can handle a lot more then people give us credit for…our interests are complex.

    Anyway, Comics. So now I have a daughter who reads Comics. And I read and make and teach about Comics. The reason I reject your position has less to do with my VERY ECLECTIC individual tastes, far more in defense of what my daughter represents as a reflection of past, present and future of Comics…not just for girls or women. This 7 year old has all kinds of interests, most do; Gymnastics, Math, Art, Reading, Writing, Dance, Kung Fu, Video Games, TV/Film, Nature, Imaginary Friends, Animals, Vampires, Stuffed Animals, The Grave Yard and Comics. Her favorite Comics/Comic Characters are the following: Finn, Jake, Fiona, Cake, Princess Bubble Gum, Marceline, Lumpy Space Princes, She-Hulk, Miles Morales, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Rocket Girl, Lumberjanes, Babs, Rocket Raccoon, Wonder Women, Hulk, Thor, Calvin & Hobbs, Venus, Power Pack, Storm, Tiny Titans (ALL), Nancy & Frank. Sure a lot of “girls,” but she LOVES male characters with equal passion and for equitable reasons. I also have a number of female and male characters I love. I am pretty sure we are not alone on this. Example: Kelly Thompson’s LOVE of Batman is not an anomaly.

    I have always had at least one friend who was female and liked Comics…not just that male superheroes. Sure they get trolled or horrassed. However, this is those dude’s problem and publishers problems. As you note…girls have always been there. It’s just that they were ignored and dismissed for decades…yet some understood the true lessons in their comics. Regarding being a hero and facing bullies, perseverance, doing the right thing.

    There is no cultural, storytelling or economic reason to selectively create and market by these “identifiers.” This only serves to disrupt our individual qualities of life.

    As to the point about Newspaper stands. They are right that this was part of the issue. You are right that this train has left the station and that we have an equitable growing market place online. I hope we evolve an equitable “real” world market place that sustains retailers of pulp with ink on it.

    I am sure this topic will continue and I hope we all gain more perspectives and see more results. This has been a good year.

    Thanks for your efforts!



  2. It’s nice to see a megacorp market products to the half of the population it has actively ignored for 75 years. However, it’s too bad that Marvel’s first big move in this direction is to repackage an old idea as something new — which, when you get down to it, signifies that nothing, really, has changed at all.

  3. Why do things enjoyed by boys/men always have to be changed for girls. I don’t,t see anyone campaigning for the likes of hello magazine to have more articles on cars and football to appeal to men.

    I don’t see anyone complaining about the lack of action in chick lit whichvsurelybis afeterrant to more men reading that kind of stuff.

    What’s wrong in having a few comics that only speak to males.

  4. @jacktheman

    The problem with your position is that it’s not just “a few comics” that only speak to males, nearly all of them do – certainly those from the big 2. Superhero comics are a very closed shop, not just for women, but all sorts of people that don’t identify as white and male between the ages of 18 and 35.

    The main failing of your line of thinking is to equate chicklit and gossip mags with male media. They do not compare. Male media is the default for all media. That means, unless something explicitly says so, it’s been designed with a man’s view at it’s heart. Not out of some terrible agenda, you understand, just because men are EVERYWHERE.

    Anywhere where decisions are being made men are at the heart of it, which is not inherently bad, but has a natural exclusionary effect. This is problematic for a multitude of reasons, but really is one of the primary reasons why we are even having this discussion.

    In addition, let me flip your question on you: What’s wrong with having a few comics that only speak to females? And a follow up: What’s wrong with having a few comics that try to cater to all humans?

  5. “>>>What’s wrong in having a few comics that only speak to males.”

    “>Nothing. I said that. What is wrong is saying a whole MEDIUM is for males.”

    ^ yes! Comics is a storytelling medium, just like other kinds of books, movies or TV. As Heidi used in her “Transformers” example, we don’t say only TV, books or movies are for dudes, ’cause that’d be silly. We acknowledge that there are different stories that appeal to different folks – & every now & then, something so big & well-written (like Harry Potter) that it’s for everyone.

    Books are for everyone! TV & movies are for everyone! Comics, are also for everyone. I’m cautiously optimistic as more & more creators use the ‘net & Kickstarter to fund things that publishers might not take a chance on, so this excellent medium of words & pictures can be used to tell even more stories, of all kinds.

    P.S. – when discussing gender among people, it’s good form to use “men” & “women”. Male/female are descriptive words & could be about chimps or puppy dogs.

  6. I am not on Facebook, so have no idea how many females claim to read comics on that site. I do, however, go to a comic book shop every week, and see about one female for every ten males who show up to purchase their weekly titles. True, during special events such as Free Comic Book Day the percentage is more balanced, and one is even more likely to see a woman or girl in costume than see a man in one more demanding than a superhero t-shirt. That seems to be the case at conventions also, yet participation in events could be more from a desire to attend a party than the commitment your typical male comic book geek exhibits on a daily basis. I have no problem with distaff characters and female readers, but I don’t believe they are actually out there to that large an extent. Either that, or they are largely all disguised as Sue Storm.

  7. Sturgeon’s Law, your observations on comic store attendance may not the best metric for us to consider. For example, I know a comic shop where there are lots and lots of women customers – and I also know a comic shop that has few women clients. I don’t think I have to tell you which shop has the overly-sexualized posters and statuettes and copies of “Eros” comics.

    I’d also be careful about assigning motives – women who seem to want “to attend a party” vs. showing “the commitment your typical male comic book geek exhibits.” That seems to be your own bias showing. Again, it’s not my experience of women comics fans.

    It may be that comic shops are (unfortunately, sadly, woefully) going the way of the newsstand. Looking at webcomics instead, I find women creators everywhere, women characters as leads, and lots and lots of female readership, too. These readers are passionately supportive of their comics, and very interactive with site message boards and on FB, too. I don’t think current female fans are like Sue Storm – but I would agree that not everyone is looking for them in the right places.

  8. You know it’s a sad state of affairs when people are arguing over what kind of consumer they are and how much better they are at buying certain things than girls and women. It’s one step up from having pride in your hometown as though being born there was an accomplishment!

    If marketing your favorite toys and cartoons to women makes you this upset then that’s more of a commentary on you than on the companies doing the marketing or the women being marketed to. It doesn’t matter if the “numbers are skewed” or any of that. You’re a customer of a company whose main goal is to have more customers and make more money.

    If the numbers actually aren’t there like you think then just wait a while and the market will go back to serving straight, white males…and then fade into obscurity.

  9. @casey – FWIW, they’ve put out 8 or 9 ongoings that have females as the lead in just the past year. This isn’t their first move towards recognizing women/girls as a marketable audience.

  10. That was me! I was one of the girls who stopped reading comics in the 80s because comics ducked into comic book stores. I was only allowed to go to those in the company of my father, who rarely wanted to, and they were threatening and unwelcome. This analysis is history explained, fantastic piece!

  11. Speaking strictly for myself, I for one have not asserted that girls do not read or should not read comics.

    But I have taken issue with the notion that because a male-centered idiom has arisen due to assorted historical circumstances, that it should be changed to be more in line with feminist notions of the Proper Way to Represent Women.

    Girls should totally have their own female-centered idiom, that plays to their own priorities.

    Some “coat-tailing” is not objectionable. If Lady Thor is popular, there’s no reason why someone couldn’t come up with a reason for her to co-exist alongside Original Thor.

    But a blanderization (c’right Steve Gerber) of both genders’ priorities to please a hypothetical middle is not good for anyone’s creativity.

  12. Though I couldn’t care less about the new Thor, (haven’t been reading mainstream for years) the fact that some great indie comics made for and/or by women/girls should be an indicator. People don’t want to create what they don’t have an interest in.

  13. Just curious, Heidi: did you read/enjoy the Claremont X-men or Wolfman Titans of the early 80’s? Or did the super-hero format not work for you? (That is, why reAd x- women when you’ve got LOVE & ROCKETS and OMAHA?)

  14. I’m a comics reader. I’m also female. I’ve gone into a LOT of big box comic stores and been made to feel unwelcome and had attempts to make me feel ignorant in a majority of them. It was always amazing how fast they’d come around when I pulled out the credit card to pay for the massive stack of books I’d buy on my bi-annual trip into a big city comic store. (I live in the boonies….)

    I did read the Claremont X-Men and the Wolfman Titans of the early 80’s. They’re neatly boxed up out in the garage somewhere. I’m an eclectic reader. I’ve got all The Punisher War Zone comics, crap-tonnes of the X-men books, (I was reading when Wolverine was vilified for being too brutal), complete runs of Hellblazer, Books of Magic & Sandman, along with Batman, Daredevil and various independents…(‘from Hell’ anyone…) I’ve got a stack of comic boxes 5 ft. high and 6 feet wide and I don’t care how many guys I’ve got telling me that women don’t read comics and should get the hell away from their playground. You’re sadly mistaken. We did and we still do! I was just ornery enough that I ignored the gatekeepers and enjoyed all the medium had to offer.

  15. Gene Phillips – thank you for admitting that you’re a bigot who prefers the He-Man Woman Haters’ Club to reality, and that Marvel having all of eight female-headed titles out of their entire line threatens your view of the world. I’m sure this will impress everyone so very much.

    And oh, before you think that “girl” is writing this – I’m almost certainly old enough to be your mother, and I’ve reading comics since 1978. So don’t even start with me, little frightened boy. I’ve been dealing with the likes of you since Carter was President.

  16. I only stumbled across ellid’s peculiar post today. I try to check for responses in a timely manner, but I missed this one.

    That said, there’s not much to add, because nothing ellid says even slightly resembles my statements. Just the usual anti-masculine rant.

  17. I don’t know if I have a good standing to talk from, as I only recently got into comics as I suddenly had access to shops, but as I’ve gone to one particular comic store, i understand why there aren’t many girls there. I’ve never been harassed or anything like other women have seemed to be, but i do feel incredibly uncomfortable while there.
    I’ve thankfully found another store, that while there I was still the only female in the shop, but I felt much more comfortable and, dare i say it, safer. While in the other shop i was kind of intimidated to ask for advice, her I could linger and check them out.
    So coming fro that, i definitely understand why females and young people go online for their comic reading, a much safer feeling environment.

  18. When I started reading comics, there weren’t any comic book stores. Drug store employees didn’t go in for gender bias when ringing up comic book sales. The other fans I met at the very first comic book conventions never once suggested to me that females had no place in comics fandom or that comics were a boys’ club. Yes, there were more boys than girls at the cons, but so what? I’m very sorry that the situation changed for the worse–and very happy to see signs that we’re getting back to comics being for everyone.

    Let’s remember that none of us reading comics have superpowers, or roam the streets of Gotham City at night in response to the Bat Signal, so we’re all taking a leap of imagination by reading, relating to, or bonding with comics characters of any stripe. It’s not weird for a female to read about male heroes. You entertain yourself with what’s available, even if what’s available has some unpalatable aspects or isn’t a perfect fit. Comics are magical and beautiful and they tell stories in a unique and powerful way. We all have a right to this art form.

  19. Arguing that we need to get comics back on newsstands to promote comics-reading, is analogous to promoting instrument-playing by getting sheet music back into record stores.

  20. I believe tons of women read comics. But I still find the facebook science flawed given that it’s mostly based on “likes”. Clicking like on a photo doesn’t necessarily translate into a 50 dollar a month pull list or that one is even going to consider buying a comic. It just means you like that picture or like the person that posted the picture. The act of clicking like is far more of a social act than a market indicator. I think the true story is going to be told when and if we ever get gender demographic numbers from digital sales.

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