Women Dominate Graphic Novels in 2015
Looking at the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2015, of the top 8 Graphic Novels, 7 of them have women on their covers. It’s also worth noting that Attack on Titan, which is the the eighth cover that does display a male, actually stars the incredibly strong willed, skilled and determined woman – said to be as deadly as one hundred soldiers by herself – Mikasa as its protagonist for a time.
Now, we’re certainly not saying that women haven’t featured on Graphic Novel covers before or that we’ve never seen a woman depicted as more than a weak girl in need of males to save her from whatever evil is being set upon the Earth/Galaxy/Universe/Dimension of your choice, but on the above covers there’s certainly a lack of inappropriate boobage and ‘warrior woman’ tropes. Something that has always struck me about women heroes is that they don’t seem to have a life; it is their sexuality or strangeness that defines them. They seem to be from a jungle or from another planet or raised to be an ultimate weapon. They seem happy to live away from society and are in many cases difficult to get along. Even if they do live a ‘normal’ life, readers get to see very little of it. Certainly, issues surrounding how they’d handle powers/responsibility with protective parents, a boyfriend, work and so on is vastly reduced when compared to male heroes.
“All the girls are wearing nothing, and they all look like they have implants. Well, I sound like a very old man, and a cranky one, but it’s true.”
So why, until very recently, were mainstream comic book readers faced with either male protagonists or a limited number of women heroes that were unrealistically portrayed both in terms of their real lives, their clothing and their body types? A panel at San Diego Comic Con in 2014 did a good job of simplifying the answer: the industry has “engrained a lot of false gender-based ideas thanks to decades of unchallenged existence.” Laura Hudson, writer for Wired, continued:
“A metaphor I use a lot is it’s like working in a bell factory,” explained Hudson. “If you work in the bell factory long enough you stop hearing the bells. I think super hero comics has stopped hearing the bells for a long time, but now you have other people coming in from the outside and [the gender issues in super hero comics are] very apparent. Having the Internet, having these other perspectives that are suddenly in front of us and are not subject to gatekeepers and are far more able to be heard exposes a lot of [these issues].”
Laura Hudson on 2014 SDCC ComicCon Panel.
So, similar to SFF in a way…without the Internet there was never really a way for readers to join together in huge numbers and say to publishers: “Look. This isn’t right.” It’s hard to remember a time before social media (Twitter and Facebook, especially), when people didn’t communicate so openly and seamlessly with people millions of miles away – often people that they met solely due to a shared passion for the same thing. Until this started happening, it’s likely that publishers were just ignorantly producing material on assumptions and as a result the many women reading comics presumed they were in such a tiny minority of women comic book fans that should they wish to enter into this ‘male world’ they would need to put up with the kind of portrayals of women that males (apparently) wanted and were being provided.
“I’m the biggest nerd – I love comic books and stuff like that! I don’t have any friends who are actresses. I only had one girlfriend when I was growing up. Most of my friends were boys. I was such a tomboy. I enjoyed doing guy things.”
The thing is, reading comic books isn’t really a guy thing. If we take the self-identified comic fans of Facebook of 2014 as our basis to draw proof of this from, we see that of 24.2 million people, 11.2 million of them are women. That’s just about 46%. Now, when you think about the kinds of covers and characters you’ve exposed 46% of your audience to for the past half century plus it’s easy to see why the comics chosen by Goodreads users are doing so well. Here’s a trio of covers showing the big three – Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl – based from the 1970’s to early 2000’s:
If we look at recent statistics for Ms Marvel, we see that the title has remained one of Marvel’s best sellers since its release in 2014. I can only imagine the reaction you’d have received should you have taken the idea of the current Ms Marvel to Marvel towers in the 1970s: “I’d like to talk to Mr Lee about my idea for a teenage Pakistani American called Kamala Khan to be the new Ms Marvel?” Well, the outcomes of that actually happening speak for themselves: Ms. Marvel Volume 1 was the best-selling graphic novel in October 2014 and made it to number #2 on The New York Times Best Seller list of paperback graphic books. In April 2015, Ms. Marvel Volume 2 made #4 on The New York Times Best Seller list of paperback graphic books and in July 2015, Ms. Marvel Volume 3 debuted at #3 on the list. That’s what happens when you supply something that has been in demand for a long time: sales.
All this said, you do have to be cautious that you don’t fall into the trap of producing diverse titles for diversity’s sake and trying too hard to reach for them. Take a look at Marvel’s marketing ploy to turn Thor into a woman. It seemed, at first, as if this could be something very good for the comic book genre. Taking one of the most masculine Marvel characters, a household name thanks to the Thor and Avengers movies, and making him a woman was a bold move. However, despite the first issue selling extremely well (over 150,000 copies of issue 1 within the first month!), a great deal of fans quickly rejected the new Thor. The storyline was lacking, the transformation’s reasoning was poor (a marketing ploy, basically) and there was an overt awareness by the writers as to who they were writing for. When you’ve got lines from bad guys such as “Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything!” and Thor, upon striking the bad guy, saying: “That’s for saying feminist like it’s a four letter word, creep,” you know you’ve crossed the line in terms of writing for an audience. Also worth noting is that Marvel’s other diversity marketing campaign – to have black male, Sam Wilson, take the place of Steve Rogers as Captain America – lost over half of its readership after a single issue too.
I’m very aware that I’ve focused on Marvel and DC in this article (with limited word-count and access to stats it’s easiest to do so), but it is important to point out that in addition to superhero diversity we’ve also seen diversity in other genres too. Lumberjanes is not too far off Buffy the vampire slayer – the female-led novel sees its characters fight off supernatural creatures at summer camp. Saga is a weird Sci-Fi/Fantasy hybrid – kind of like Star Wars, kind of not – the protagonists are husband and wife, with Alana having recently become mother to baby Hazel. Nimona is also a Science-y/Fantasy hybrid and features Nimona, a shapeshifter who is a little overweight and has pinky, punky hair. You may remember Noelle Stevenson – the author – for her formula that drew attention to the hyper-sexualised and unrealistic way women are drawn in comics: “How to fix every Strong Female Character pose in superhero comics: replace the character with Hawkeye doing the same thing.”
Additionally, I’d like to point out that in my mind there is a place for boobs and athletic builds in comic books. You can have sexy women as heroes and protagonists, just like you can have sexy men as heroes and protagonists. Most certainly, no one wants to put an end to the sexy women in erotic, romantic comedies such as Sunstone and no one is saying that Cat Woman can’t be sexy. The thing is, you can also have dorky, never-going-to-be-a-supermodel women as heroes and protagonists just in the same way that you have geeky, awkward never-going-to-be-an-underwear-model men as heroes and protagonists. You can give them lives and you can make them relatively normal.
Comic books were on the brink of death in the 1990s and early 2000s and it’s because the industry got lazy and we punished them for it. Comic book publishers began to believe that comic book collectors would buy anything and everything they put out, that the covers were more important than the characters and the stories within. They decided to follow models that had worked in the past or that ‘should’ work based on their assumptions as to who their readership was – they make no attempt to research what their readers wanted or who exactly they were – and they churned it all out by the boatload.
What is great about the Goodreads 7/8 covers stat I was able to bring you today is that it adds further proof to the comic book publishers that this demand for a wide variety of stories, none-of-which rely upon female characters produced from a mould cast in the 1930-1960s reused over and over, is worth listening to. They support the Ms Marvel sales figures that have already resulted in new series of Batgirl, Gotham Academy, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Spider-Gwen comics being commissioned.
I’m sure we’ll see less women in the top eight of best graphic novels next year or the year after, demand will balance out now the supply is there, but I’m sure comic book writers around the world are preparing to submit ideas for characters and stories they avoided submitting due to fear of rejection prior to the ‘guy thing’ myth having been broken. That’s a good thing for us fans who have been robbed of certain types of stories and certain types of characters for far too long.