Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gender and Comics

I'm going to divert away from the direct talking about Art in comics to get into something that's been rising it's head more and more over the last few years. When it comes to comics, gender has been an issue for a very long time: Be it in relation to what female characters wear, how they are portrayed, how many exist, how many female creators there are, and the overall makeup of the comic-reading audience.

Part of the reason this has come up on other blogs and on twitter and any other place people discuss comics is due to DC's recently announced relaunch. In September, they are relaunching (nearly) their entire line of comics with new creative teams, altered characters, and somewhat of a clean slate. But as the 52 books being relaunched were announced, a rather glaring thing was noticed: Of the creative teams on all of the books, there is only one woman involved. Gail Simone, one of the best writers in comics, will be co-writing Firestorm and writing Batgirl.

Out of all the other books in the relaunch, the only other women involved are on the editorial and DC staff side. This isn't meant to belittle those people and their jobs, as they are extremely vital, but one woman working on two books out of 52 is a pretty damn small number. And the internet reacted as it does, with some insanity and some good commentary on why this is and why it's bad. So this is my stab at the whole thing.

The first, and arguably most important thing, to get out of the way is very simple: Comics do not appeal to men more than women. As I've stated more than once on this still-small blog, comics are a medium, not a genre. TV does not appeal to men more than women. Books do not. Movies don't. Plays don't. No forms of entertainment do. Mediums are gender neutral. They are simple ways to tell a story and have little to nothing to do with the actual content.

So we break it down further. When many people say women don't like comics, they actually mean women don't like superheroes. In many ways, this is also just as false, but it's possible this is more where the root of the situation is. Superheroes, as a genre, dominate the American comic market to the extent that saying 'comics' to many people just means 'superheroes'. So let's dig into this.

I will make the statement here that I firmly believe: Superhero comics do not inherently appeal to men or women. The current handling of superheroes may appeal more to men, but the idea itself doesn't. The problem, then, is somewhat of a circular situation. Because of the early days of the American comic market, comic books are marketed to the male audience. The comic market is small, so small that the companies cannot afford to risk losing what audience they already have. Sadly, right now, the audience is getting older and the stories are adapting in such a way that even younger audiences, male and female, are being slowly pushed away.

It is a very difficult position. Can these companies afford to take risks on different takes on superhero books? Things that may appeal to younger audiences or to female readers of any age? Every so often, it's attempted. Usually it fails. Sometimes it's never given a chance to get far enough TO fail. The comics business isn't dying, but risks are difficult to take by the larger companies that shape the market, and so we continue to see the same kinds of books over and over.

This is not to say there are not women working in comics. While DC's upcoming relaunch only has one female creator, as noted above, editorial positions are much more largely diverse across the board. In fact, women have held editorial and corporate positions in comics companies for years. And it isn't as if there aren't women that write or draw comics. DC has had more than just one before, as does Marvel. Admittedly, the numbers are always skewed heavily to male creators, but female creators aren't nonexistent.

But not just that, there are even more women in comics when you broaden your scope. The world of manga in Japan is heavily occupied by women, telling all kinds of stories. During the early 2000s, manga was seen as the great way to draw in female readers to comics as a whole, and while it succeeded in part, the fad has since been dying in the states and female readership falling with it. So what does manga have that the mainstream American comics don't, that attracts more women creators and readers?

Simple: Manga is not dominated by a single genre.

And this is where the whole thing gets even trickier. As I've said already, superhero comics are not inherently more for men than for women, yet they are marketed that way and viewed that way by many. But looking at the larger picture, it seems more than superheroes, as a genre, are just as niche a market as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, or what have you. It's not a gender issue, it's a genre issue. Superheroes appeal to some people more than others, and it's generally a smaller group.

The issue of women in comics, both readership and creators, is actually the same piece of a larger problem in comics today. Solving this one thing could, arguably, solve numerous other problems with the market all at once. And in many ways, it is already happening.

The advent and growth of webcomics and the way independent comics are rising today has given a voice to anyone that wants to tell any kind of story with panels and pictures and words. There are humor strips, fantasy epics, scifi space operas, detective stories, noir, romance, war stories, and a thousand other things out there in the world of indie comics. This is where the mantra that comics are for everyone shows through the most. And to bring this back around to the topic at hand, the indie market is flooded with as many women as there are men! They're telling all kinds of stories, just like their male contemporaries.

So here we are at the real point I see at the end of this long debate. Yes, there are problems still with how women are depicted in many comics. Yes, this applies to both what they wear and how they act in many cases. These problems and issues are, however, fading from even the superhero genre as a whole. We no longer live in a time where it's okay to have the Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four told to get out of the way while the three men of the team take care of the bad guy. Now, she's portrayed as probably the strongest member of the team, and this is just one example. The content problems are changing.

The next step, the step that extends beyond the content and is far more important to the survival of the comic industry as a whole, is to broaden the market as a whole. The means bringing in women, younger readers, and all those other men that still don't read comics because they just don't give a damn about superheroes. And the key to that isn't using a quota system or anything like that, as has been suggested by many who are annoyed by the discussion of women in comics.

Simply, we need a broader selection of genres on the bookshelves that can appeal to any and everyone. Amidst all the doom and gloom that one might hear about the comic market today, I think that this is not only possible, but already happening. And hopefully this will mean more women reading comics, more women making comics, and situations such as the current one at DC becoming a thing of the past.