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The Comic Industry’s Struggle for Gender Diversity Will Always Be a Maze

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The Comic Industry’s Struggle for Gender Diversity Will Always Be a Maze

Note: This piece can be found in Paste Quarterly #2, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.

“A man never thinks he should feel uncomfortable in a comic book shop because he’s never been given a reason to feel uncomfortable, while on TV a popular joke is a woman walks into a comic shop, cue laugh track. We’ve been raised to believe that certain things are for girls and certain things are for boys, so when we cross over that invisible divide, there’s a sense that you shouldn’t belong. That’s an important thing to understand and be aware of.” —Sam Gaitan

The reality that women are involved in comics is neither a new topic nor a new fact. Women have always made comics, and women have always enjoyed comics. However, the last several years have witnessed grassroots changes in both the business and fandom of comics—alterations that are not widely understood.

Recently, Marvel Comics’ vice president of sales, David Gabriel, suggested declining comics sales for the publisher were related to the company’s attempts to increase diversity. Milton Griepp of industry site ICv2 quoted Gabriel as saying, “We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.”

Writing for The Guardian, Sian Cain noted that online critics were quick to reply, “pointing to Marvel’s tendency over the last few years to focus on restarting and rebooting storylines, creating a complicated web of interwoven universes, as well as an overwhelming output that fans struggled to keep up with.” Gabriel later released a clarifying statement saying that the company was proud of their new ensembles, and that retailers were simply concerned about core characters being abandoned. Regardless, the issue raised points to broader questions about the industry: What is going on here?

The media usually considers this subject from the point of view of characters (Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman) or hyper-famous creators, such as Marjane Satrapi, Kate Beaton, Kelly Sue DeConnick or masters like Louise Simonson. But the real story lies in the grassroots: with fans, young professionals and students of the medium.

Deep in the grassroots is where change is made, where the long-lasting decisions are chosen, where creativity happens. Reporters and writers who only cover the companies are surprised to find popular movements that seem to coalesce out of nowhere; but if they had interviewed or taken an interest in the real movers and shakers on the ground, nothing would have shocked them.

As Jill S. Katz points out in her academic paper “Women and Mainstream Comic Books,” women have always been present in the medium. “Since the beginning of mainstream comic books, women more or less remained in the background, helping their husbands, or contributing work as secretaries who doubled as inkers, letterers and editors.” Katz’s interviews reflect the same point of origin the interviews for this feature did: a lifelong adoration of comics.

A number of women shared their opinions, experiences and insights into an industry that remains in a continual state of flux. Consider what follows an oral history, or an initial exploration of the terrain. This is the story of how it happened, and where it’s going.

Origin Stories

Nobody remembers discovering comics, any more than they recall the first day they stumbled over the sun or water. If this sounds pretentious and abstract, it’s because comics always seem to be there at beginning, right before memory begins, and most lifers don’t have a sharp recollection of reading them for the first time. Nor is it easy to explain why we love them. Still: we all started somewhere.

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Bandette Cover Art by Colleen Coover

“I am existentially compelled to make comics,” said Colleen Coover, the artist, writer and co-writer behind Small Favors, Banana Sunday, Gingerbread Girl and Bandette. This was a sentiment echoed by nearly every creator I spoke with. Gale Galligan, the illustrator of The Babysitter’s Club, said, “I keep making comics because there is a burning need within me to make comics, simple as that. I’m not sure why I’m wired this way, and I’m sure my parents ask the same question, but I find peace in communicating myself through picture stories.”

Sam Gaitan, an organizer and the cartoonist, said, “I was a fan first. Once I became an adult and realized I could buy comics weekly, I started visiting my local comic book shop regularly.”

Galligan told Paste she had “been drawing comics since I was very small! I used to cut my favorite strips out of the newspaper—Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes, mostly—and tape them into a binder, and then I went ahead and added some of my own. My favorite was about an unfortunate hamburger accident in a nuclear plant that created a revenge-driven cow monster. Not sure if the science checks out, but what can you do?”

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The Baby-Sitters Club Cover Art by Gale Galligan

“I’ve been an avid reader since I was little and always wanted to do something with stories,” said Gaitan, who hosts Ladies’ Night, a female-friendly event at her local Texas comics store. “I wrote on the side and most of my art is centered around stories, be it mythology or fairy tales or whatever I can come up with in my head, so it was natural to gravitate to comics. Whether I wanted to read about super heroes or horror or magical girls or read a deep thought-provoking series. There was something for me. And I think that wide spectrum of potential is why I’ve stayed with comics.”

Jennifer L. Holm, the Eisner-winning comic creator behind books such as Sunny Side Up and Squish, described her childhood featuring “a lot of comics in my house when I was growing up. My dad was a huge fan and I’m one of five children…and the only girl.” She loved comics and read them obsessively. “But, I was always a bit discouraged by the lack of female characters that I could relate to as a kid.” After publishing fiction, she and brother Matt created and published Babymouse in 2005. “It’s an art form that has wide appeal—from toddlers to grown-ups. Visuals are memorable and universal.”

“It’s been my life goal since I was a child, I think before I even knew how to read,” Coover continued. “When I was young I would read literally every comic book or comic strip I could get my hands on, even advertisements. So even in the awkward teen and college years when I thought a career in the arts was pie in the sky, I never came up with an alternate ambition to drawing comics. Since a formal arts education wasn’t accessible to me, I taught myself by a combination of observation, trial-and-error and mining the expert knowledge of my collaborators and friends.”

“The internet is the thing that connected me to comics and especially other women who were interested in comics,” said Shelley Barba, a librarian and scholar currently editing a collection of academic essays on Harley Quinn, the popular Batman foe.

“I’ve been around guys who liked comics all my life,” Barba wrote in an email exchange, “but never cared for them until I found other women who could talk about comics in the way I wanted to talk about comic book characters. Despite language and culture barriers, I feel like I can have better conversations with my online female comic book fan friends than I could with any of my male friends [in real life].”

Galligan “hopped on” the train of the U.S. manga boom in her teenage year by drawing “magical kid adventures,” but “kept doing autobio and fancomics in my free time in college, realized it was something I really wanted to do for money, and started picking up freelance work. Then I went to comic book grad school, and here we are.”

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Sunny Side Up Cover Art by Matthew Holm

In her highly influential and often-cited 2016 paper “Femininity and fandom: the dual-stigmatization of female comic book fans,” Stephanie Orme writes that, “Popular culture is resplendent with tropes about nerdy guys fawning over the elusive woman who shares their geeky interests. Comic book stores are portrayed as a male space where female patrons are an anomaly—a rare breed of comic book enthusiast. Yet, interestingly, this popular culture narrative of the rare female comic book fan seems at odds with reality.”

Nowadays, Orme says that “survey data from comic book stores” suggest that this number is growing. Orme is referring to an article by Shannon O’Leary in a 2015 Publisher’s Weekly. O’Leary’s story reports the results of an informal survey conducted among retailers. “For last year’s survey,” O’Leary writes, “most of the retailers we queried responded that women ages 17-30 appeared to be the fastest-growing segment of the comics market.” Of the 10 stores queried, “four reported that their customers are 65 to 70 percent male and 30 to 35 percent female. The remaining six estimate that, regardless of age, their customer breakdown by gender is 50 to 60 percent male and 40 to 50 percent female.” Orme adds that “New York Comic-Con has seen a 62% increase in the number of female attendees. Likewise, San Diego Comic-Con reports having a 49/49 split between male and female attendees, with 2 percent identifying as non-binary.”

Given these realities, Orme questions why, “If women are, in fact, such a large contingent of the comic-book community, then why do these gendered stereotypes of female fans persist? ... Accounts of comic-book history and culture continue to frame comic books as a hobby for men.” She suggests that, “The comic-book industry has a history of underrepresenting women and portraying them as hypersexualised and in gender-stereotyped roles.” In her interviews with fans, Orme says that, “Based on the stories shared by these women, I identified two recurrent types of stigma: stigma of being a female comic book fan and stigma of being ‘too old’ for comics.”

Orme also stated that, “Female comics fans do not solely experience stigmatisation from outside the comics community. Many women expressed feeling stigmatised from within the comic-book fandom, most notably by male fans.”

“While we don’t have any market research, the eyes don’t lie,” Axel Alonso, Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief told the Washington Post’s Sabaa Tahir in February 2014. “If you go to conventions and comic book stores, more and more female readers are emerging. They are starved for content and looking for content they can relate to.”

Alonso is both right and wrong. There’s no market research of the kind he means: SWOT analysis, choice-modeling, risk analysis, market trends, market segmentation. But there is plenty of evidence to back up the existence of women in comics.

Statistics

According to Walt Hickey, writing for the quantitative site FiveThirtyEight, “Because the vast majority of the $365 million market is spent in those comic book shops, many of which are independently owned, demographic data on buyers has been difficult to track.”

As Brett Schenker, who runs the comic website Graphic Policy, explains: “The publisher sells to a distributor, the distributor sells to the comic store, the store sells to the customer. There’s not a feedback loop to get back info how much is being sold in stores, let alone who those customers are.”

Schenker explained that in March 2017, the number of comic fans on Facebook in America were 31 million and 283.8 million worldwide. In America, men accounted for 52.78 percent of readership and women 47.22 percent. Women are the majority of fans under 18 and will “eventually become the majority of fans as age increases.” European Facebook likes are divided between women at 45.45 percent and men at 54.55 percent. According to Schenker, at Marvel Comics there are “24 different female creators set to work on 19 different books in April.” At DC, that number expanded to “28 different female creators set to work on 21 different books in May.”

Data in the Evidence Based Library and Information Practice Journal states that 98 percent of public libraries reported having graphic novels and comics in their collections. The key push behind that growth is patron demand. Applegate’s writing in 2008 suggested public library usage was 68 percent female and 32 percent male.

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Jessica Jones Promotional Art

In 2015, Victoria McNally, writing for MTV News, did a round-up of all the statistical evidence they could find for the increased presence of women in the geek world. The arrival of Jessica Jones and Supergirl onscreen marked the first time two female-led superhero shows aired simultaneously. Of course, as McNally wrote, “According to data provided to USA Today by Nielsen in early November, the average audience that tunes in to watch Supergirl every week is almost completely equal in terms of gender parity. Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a close second, and even the show with the highest number of male viewers—The Flash—still has a relatively large number of female viewers. Recent data from ABC also suggests that the gender demographics for their mini-series Marvel’s Agent Carter were almost completely even, too, similar to those of Supergirl. “

In July 2015, Heidi MacDonald, the driving force behind the industry comics-culture website, The Beat, told Washington Post reporter Michael Cavna that manga was a major spring behind the boom, and noted, “It’s not that girls need to be socialized into heroic storytelling — it’s that they have to be socialized out of liking it.”

Not An Imaginary Story

“Part of it could be the difference between how men and women are perceived to be interfacing with fandom,” Galligan said. “There’s an interesting discussion on ‘transformative’ and ‘curative’ fandom that I think about sometimes.” Curatives prioritize canonical knowledge (knowing backstory) and transformatives use the canon for launching new ideas and discovering subtext. “For example, a curative fan of Steven Universe might be categorizing the Gems, listing their powers and writing out episode guides, while a transformative fan would be sending Steven to Hogwarts or inventing original characters. The theory is that there’s a split between men and women in fandom, where the women we see are transformative fans, while men tend to be more curative. It’s easy to understand how this theory holds water, and to an extent, I agree.”

“But also,” Galligan added, “have you seen the 500 years’ worth of Star Wars redesigns, original stories and concept art? The infinite comic book crossovers where everyone’s punching everyone else to the max? The adult-only Harley Quinn fancomics where Harley’s shipped with Batman, Poison Ivy and everyone in between? Dudes do this all the time! It’s not just a girl thing to say, ‘what if,’ but for some reason, when you draw Cap and Bucky smooching. … Basically, I think they’re both valid means of engaging with fandom, and it’s weird (but not surprising) that women’s fanworks are examined in this way.”

The commenters broadly agreed gender equality had increased in recent years. Although, they added, the idea needed clarification.

“Before the big geek boom into the mainstream,” said Gaitan, “there was this feeling of isolation and being an outsider, especially if you were a woman. I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t an oddity until I went online and found this huge community of women who are into the same things as me, and I’ve often noticed how they are the most active and dedicated members of the fandom. They post theories and picture sets and cosplay and do art and it’s just an amazing, creative, dedicated fan base. That dedication can keep a comic series alive. It can also eventually make a difference in the industry. I’ve seen fan artists go from posting their art on Tumblr to getting picked up to do professional comic work, like Babs Tarr and Noelle Stevenson and Kate Leth. Women provide a different point of view that male fans or creators might not have considered, and I think their involvement is essential to making something that’s interesting and different.”

“Women are absolutely involved in every level of the creative process,” said Jennifer Holm. “You can see this most plainly in how female creators like Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, Kate Beaton and Noelle Stevenson are dominating awards and bestseller lists. But even behind the scenes, so much of the work is done by women. Most of the editors, art directors, marketers and salespeople who work on my books are women. So there really is a great deal of participation from start to finish.”

Coover explained that corporate pluralism was not the same thing as diversity in comics, although the two were often confused. “If we’re talking about Marvel and DC, the two massive entertainment corporations that provide most of the work-for-hire assignments in the American comic book publishing world, the case can certainly be made that they have not done everything they can to place more women, sexual minorities and people of color in their creative assignments. That’s a reality of corporate entertainment as much in comics as it is in film, video games and television, where marketing to specific demographics and achieving profit margins are always going to be a strong current guiding the direction the company moves in. I do know that many of the people who work in the creative side of those publishing houses do their best to correct that situation, and with some notable success, but it’s going to be a long, gradual progress, with some inevitable backslides.”

“But comics do not consist only of those two companies,” Coover continued, “so focusing only on their advancements or shortcomings does a severe disservice to the women who create comics outside of that very narrow sliver of publishing. There has [been] a remarkable boom of women, LGBTQ people and people of color in American comics in the past decade or so, whether published by alternate publishing houses, small press, self-published or published on the web. Raina Telgemeier is easily the highest-selling single creator in the US. And yet there are many who would consider her not yet truly ‘broken in’ to the comics industry because she’s not writing Batman or Wolverine. That’s a very weird attitude, which I think contributes to both the idea and the fact of gender inequality in comics.”

“If everyone in the pipeline is a white man from beginning to end, there’s a huge chance that they’re missing some vital perspective,” Galligan said. “As for fans—well, it’d be nice if marketers could just acknowledge that it’s not just men who consume media, women also enjoy good merch and their money looks exactly the same in the bank, and then we can all move on.”

“There’s still work to be done on the back end though,” said Gaitan. “It’d be great to see more female editors and writers and artists, especially women of color. And depiction of women, though better, can still be lacking. You still get the occasional broken back, butt-out pose. But I’m optimistic and I think the more we put importance on this kind of representation, the closer we’ll come to equality.”

Galligan elaborated: “Yes, absolutely, progress has been made from a few decades ago, or even a few years ago. Women are routinely creating bestsellers, and there are more and more great comics about women, by women, that you can pick up in any bookstore. When I was a kid, I mainly relied on shojo manga for my lady protagonists, and now there are also comics like Drama and Skim on the shelves—I can’t imagine how reading those at a younger age might have changed me. With webcomics, there’s also the ability to bypass the gatekeeper, so to speak. Women all over the world are telling incredible stories that might not have been published in the past, finding devoted fanbases and proving once and for all that people are hungry for their work and desperate to buy their stuff.”

“That said,” she added, “there’s always more to do. There are still publishers paying page rates from decades ago, and equality in comics is significantly harder to achieve if not everyone can afford to work in comics. We still have the recurring variant cover problem. Webcomics aren’t considered for major awards nearly as often as they should be. And I hate to bring up the Big Two—not all comics are the Big Two, there is so much more out there to discuss!—but they do still have their fair share of market influence and critical coverage, so it’d be unwise to ignore their stats. We’ve come a fair way, but let’s keep the trends moving in a good direction!”

“Awareness is always valuable, as it helps to prevent decisions of unconscious bias,” Coover said. She hopes for “a continuation of the variety we’ve seen grow out of independent publishing and web comics in the first two decades of this century. I believe that an expansion of the genres available to readers will encourage more and more new creators from all demographics and geographies.”

“In terms of fandom,” Holm added, “if you go to any major comics convention, you will see a lot of women. My daughter has literally grown up attending San Diego Comic-Con. I started taking her when she was a toddler (they even have a daycare!). She’s nine now and has never doubted that she belongs in the comics world.”

Sequential Art

When asked what she’d like to see in the future, Galligan replied, “In short: more comics! There’s such a fantastic variety of work being published today, and I’d love for that to continue and grow. I want to keep seeing comics that resonate with young people and help them understand important things about themselves. I’d love to see even more comics grants and residencies to help nurture upcoming creators, and for more types of comics to attain ‘legitimacy’ in the public eye. And it’d be really great if we could figure out the whole preordering thing.”

Gaitan said that she wanted more representation “for all women and all types of men too.”

“I want to get to a point where it’s no longer a big deal when there’s a new female-led title or when a book has a queer, transgender, disabled, person of color. I want these to be the norms because that’s one less battle we have to fight and one less divide we have to erase. I want everyone to be able to walk into a comic book shop and know they belong in that space and they don’t have to be afraid of stares or someone questioning their interests. I want there to be diverse creators and editors and artists. When we have all these, doors open up and there’s no telling what kind of diverse, rich stories we’ll be able to see on the page because we are welcoming all types of people. The comics industry is incredible because it’s about telling impossible stories and pulling you into that world. We just want those worlds to include us in it too.”

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