Noelle Stevenson, creator of the popular webcomic Nimona and co-writer of the upcoming Lumberjanes series, sparked an uproar on the Internet this week. After posting a comic on her blog, she was bombarded with misogynistic comments from self-professed guy “geeks.” Why were they so furious? Because the comic depicted real interactions in which comic book store clerks had made sexist comments. “What, don’t you want My Little Pony, too?” a clerk asks Stevenson as she pays for a comic book. In another panel, Stevenson asks a different clerk if there are any copies of Lobo #1 in the store. “Haha, all the girls want it because he’s sexy now,” he says. The Internet backlash Stevenson received for speaking up is just one of many cases highlighting the gender tension in an industry associated with boy-club exclusivity.
Sexism in the comics industry garnered tons of media hype over the last year. Tess Fowler, artist of “Anchor Point” in the Liberator series, accused Brian Wood, a veteran writer of titles ranging from X-Men to Star Wars, of feigning interest in her work to get her into bed. Comics Alliance reported in November that three other women emailed Fowler, explaining that they had received similar treatment from Wood. In an interview with the New Republic last August, Mark Millar, a writer and Fox’s chief creative consultant for Marvel films, made divisive comments about rape culture. “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” Millar said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation.” Gerry Conway, co-creator of Marvel vigilante The Punisher, also made waves in August when he blamed the poor representation of women and minorities in comics on readers. “I think the bigger question is why readers are not interested in those characters,” Conway said in an article in the Los Angeles Times. “Comics follow society. They don’t lead society, they reflect it.” As news outlets continue to churn out articles highlighting disparities in gender equality, the outlook for gender equality in one of the most creative playgrounds in media has never looked so apparently dire.
How rampant is sexism in the world of comics? There’s no easy answer, and it’s not simply a women’s issue or a men’s issue. But underneath the surface of this rampant misogyny is a number of committed couples who don’t just exist in the world of comics…they thrive in it.
“I don’t think that casual sexism is unique to the comics industry,” Kelly Sue DeConnick says during a conversation alongside her husband Matt Fraction. “I mean, god, I wish it were unique to the comic industry; we’d be so much better off if this was just a problem in our little world.”
DeConnick, writer of Captain Marvel and Pretty Deadly, and Fraction, writer of Hawkeye and Sex Criminals, have been married since 2002. They’ve witnessed more than their fair share of sexism in the industry, including male chauvinism directed towards DeConnick.
“I don’t know the amount of times people assume Kelly Sue is my valet, like at a comic convention, or that [she’s] just here because [she’s my] wife,” Fraction says. “People think [she] couldn’t possibly be into these things, let alone make these things.” DeConnick agrees, voicing her frustration.
“It is embarrassing to have to say, ‘Please treat me like an equal,’” DeConnick says. “But I think… every time I open my mouth is a time my daughter won’t have to.”
Paul Tobin, the writer behind the Colder series, recognizes the pervasiveness of sexism as well: “Sexism is a vicious problem made even worse in that many people aren’t even aware of how prevalent it is, considering it to be ‘just the way things are. Does it exist in comics? Yeah… it exists everywhere.”
Tobin and Colleen Coover, creator of the popular “Small Favors” series, have been together since the early 90s. They won the Best Digital Comic Eisner Award last year for their series Bandette, and they’re currently co-writing the series Adventure Time: The Flip Side. Though Coover (thankfully) hasn’t been on the receiving end of sexist behavior in the industry, she describes a catch-22 that reveals how important it is to explore this topic.
“I’m occasionally invited to participate in panel discussions about ‘women in comics,’” Coover said. “I’m usually emotionally torn by those invitations, because, yeah, I want women in comics to thrive and be seen as thriving, but I’d much rather be part of a discussion about ‘awesome creators in comics’ that’s stacked with awesome women and men.”
You don’t have to look far to find busty, female characters in itty-bitty outfits. In fact, two grad students calculated the Body Mass Index (BMI) for 25 male and 25 female characters in the Marvel universe, and they found that all of the women had low BMI’s and one-third were underweight (link to research page). The men’s BMI’s, however, were more evenly distributed throughout a healthy range.
With that in mind, Mike Allred, artist of Marvel’s upcoming Silver Surfer series, strives to accurately portray women in his comic book drawings. “I take a lot of pride in trying to make my women realistic—all shapes and sizes…and very relatable,” Mike Allred said. “I also see a lot of great female characters in the business. I mean, there are characters that are stereotypical.”
“With 2-inch waists?” Laura Allred, colorist of the Silver Surfer series and Mike’s wife of three decades, responds.
Mike Allred laughs. “Yeah, just kind of ridiculous. But I’m not drawn to them.”
The way male and female characters are portrayed in comics ultimately reflects the diversity of comic book genres. “If we’re looking at the escapist fantasy of superhero comics, the men and women are both caricatures of their gender, hyper masculine and hyper feminine,” Tobin explains. “If you delve into other parts of the industry, you’ll find more honest portrayals of genders.”
Like Stevenson, thousands of women are treated disrespectfully in comic book stores (so much so that lists exist online, like HaterFreeWednesdays, describing which stores are safe, inclusive spaces). Blatant displays of sexism aside, some storeowners and clerks have good intentions but fail to act on them in a helpful way.
“I get incredibly well-meaning retailers who reach out to me to let me know their store is welcoming of women,” DeConnick says. “They mean well and I don’t mean to disparage these people, but they’ll tell me, ‘Yeah, we have a lot of women that come to my store and I always give them Fables because women love Fables.’ This idea that women are somehow a monolith is exhausting.”
Fraction explains, “I think, with this particular thing, there is a degree of ignorance. Every one of us is a work in progress, and all of us are figuring out how to navigate and respect one another; assumptions get everyone into trouble.”
The reality is that many creator-owned series, and even some licensed media properties, experience popularity with male and female readers. “Books like Saga, our own Bandette and The Walking Dead show that you can have adventure comics for adults that are successful across gender lines,” Coover says. “Even… the success of books like My Little Pony and Adventure Time show that to be true.”
From the comics industry to comic book stores and the comics themselves, sexism plays out little indignities that amass over time. That said, the world of comics also boasts dedicated couples who love their work. The reality is that, yes, sexism exists, but it doesn’t define the incredible people in the industry.
The image at the top of this feature was drawn by Noelle Stevenson.