Back in July, more than 130,000 nerds swarmed San Diego for everyone’s favorite convention of superheroes and testosterone. Batman, Superman and … Ant-Man? Oh, my. But it might be time to vanquish our stereotype of the comics reader as an acne-challenged teen boy. According to market research from comics analysis site Graphic Policy:
Women now account for
of comic readers.
That’s up from 40 percent three years ago. Where did all the Lumberjanes and Ms. Marvels come from? “Women in comics” used to mean nothing good — the website Women in Refrigerators, started in 1999, once documented all the dead female comic characters and their gruesome murders. And therein lies one of the keys to the shift: the Internet. Before the 1990s, says Rider University professor Sheena Howard, women were at the whim of publishers’ choices of heroes and storylines. They were excluded from marketing, as comics were placed only inside literal toys for boys. “Women also felt uneasy inside stores because of belittling insults by men,” says Howard, a problem that disappeared when the Internet allowed them to easily buy and read comics cheaply at home. If you’re a woman, we’re guessing it’s more exciting to read about Superwoman kicking ass than, oh, being depowered, locked in werewolf form, raped, killed or forced to marry a bad guy. Better a woman slayer than a slayed woman?
But there may be an even more compelling kick-start to the women-in-comics upsurge: Millennials’ buying power. Millennials want comic characters who are just as diverse as they are, and according to University of Wisconsin comparative literature professor Mary Layoun, this is now reflected in the growing “diversity of visual style and storylines and characters.” Marvel and DC have catered to this by making Thor and Captain Marvel female characters, while Image Comics has promoted Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly and Rat Queens. Layoun also says there are a lot more female writers than there used to be. USC professor Joe Saltzman says independent comics on the Web have always been populated with confident female heroes — now those Web-based upstarts receive just as much attention as big male-dominated titles from DC or Marvel.
Better a woman slayer than a slayed woman?
To be sure, women buying comics is not new. What’s happening now is something of a resurgence. Saltzman says that in the 1940s and ’50s, teen girls read Archie, career girls looked up to Diana Prince and many enjoyed romantic stories of women falling hopelessly in love. In the 1960s, however, male baby boomers began to write stories that appealed solely to the male “sensibility.” In these, women existed as “[either] sexual objects of desire or maternal, nurturing caregivers.” For the next thirty years, Saltzman says, women in comics “had huge breasts and asses, wore little clothing and looked suggestively at the predominantly male reader.” These hypersexualized characters, especially the parodies of strong women like the man-hating Thundra, turned off women.
Some believe women’s rising interest in comics has less to do with new stories than the influence of movies and traditional male heroes. Indeed, if you count the Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Captain America and Wolverine movies, women have cheered for a main guy in nearly 20 movies. Layoun says this “absolutely” makes sense, because “older traditional heroes’ stories [can] be emotionally interesting and inspirational to women.” But if you take a brief look at the excitement level in women-led stories like The Hunger Games, it’s easy to see how great the need for that type of story was.
Either way, since comics started offering realistic female characters — including lesbians, feminists and confident women who don’t let males dictate who or why they are — they have returned to the comic fold. Yet, there’s plenty that comic publishers can do to reach more women. Less than 30 percent of comic characters and writers are female, says Saltzman. But he believes the future of the business is dependent on women spending their cash on comics, and that publishers will get them there: “The day of the female superhero who can beat the male superhero with brains and brawn is dawning.”
Why you should care
Because we love super-sheroes.