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Female-Driven Comics and the Problem they Face

Female-Driven Comics and the Problem they Face

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“Journey into Mystery” fans felt anxiety and dread a few days ago when some readers noticed that Marvel left the title off their recently announced September 2013 solicitations. It wasn’t the end of the world, though. Perhaps it was an oversight, or even a delay in production, pushing issue #656 over into October. Sadly, neither was the case. The series writer Kathryn Immonen posted a blog entry confirming that Marvel was canceling the Lady Sif comic:

We are done with 655. But seeing as we were basically cooked right out of the gate, I’m going to call hanging in for nearly a year a success. To be truthful, the real challenge that we inherited with this book was living up to the beautiful work that Kieron et al had done previously and the amazing reader energy that had been generated.

If all that had happened with our ten issues was to extend the influence of the astonishing Valerio Schiti, that would have been enough. As it is, I’m so proud of what Valerio, Jordie, Clayton, Pepe and I put on the page under Lauren and Jake’s fearless leadership. I’m also thrilled to have been able to write Sif as a fierce warrior and a lovable dork. I hope she finds a new home somewhere with a lot of things to say and a lot of things to kill.

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When I first joined the Sound on Sight team less than five months ago the first serious piece I wrote was a list of great on-going female-driven comics, And anyone paying attention to my contributions to the site since then may have noticed that I tend to gravitate towards female comics more than the average male comic book fan, having published more reviews for female-starring comics than male. This is for several reasons. I consider myself a vocal feminist, and seeing positive representations of women in media does provide some satisfaction, and gives me more hope for the human race (and likewise, being objected to misogyny can be enough to strip that hope away; guess which one happens more often!). It’s more than that, though. Having read so many male comics earlier in my life, I find that reading female-driven stories and characters provides me with new perspectives, experiences, and different nuances than male comics have. So, for something new. And now to completely contradict myself, I love good female-comics because …they’re good comics, simply put. When you have great stories, great characters, great artwork, and great ideas, why should the gender of the characters even matter?

w2I love comic books dearly, and so it is especially disheartening to see such a marginalization of a gender that accounts for roughly half of the population, within the fandom and the industry. Anyone who has ever walked inside a comic book store for a considerable amount of time, or has been to a convention, knows that many females do read comics. And often times, girls are the most vocal and obsessive fans; all you gotta do is browse through comic tags on Tumblr for an hour to see that. And yet for some (rather: too many), the comic world is seen as a “boys only club” (the video/computer gamer community can be equally sexist and terrible in this regard).

This is a problem that males – me being one of them – cannot truly ‘relate’ to because men are heavily represented in comics, as well as everything else. Having surrounded myself with female friends throughout life, and in reading feminist thought pieces on media, I saw a trend: girls/women can have a very difficult time immersing themselves in a fictional world, or enjoying a work of art, if they do not see themselves represented in what they are seeing. This is why entertainment industries have to change. This is why there needs to be a fair and equal representation of all genders (not both, because there are certainly more than just two) in media.

In the first wave of DC’s New 52, roughly 8 of the 52 monthly titles had leading female characters (around 15%), with an even smaller percentage of female creators writing and drawing these comics. Marvel has more of a focus on team comics than solo, but once again, there are few female comics when compared to male; and generally, fewer female members than male in the team comics. Of its female line-up, which features “Captain Marvel”, “Fearless Defenders”, “X-Men”, “Journey Into Mystery”, and “Red She-Hulk” (all good comics), the latter two have been confirmed canceled in under two months. “Red She-Hulk” and the Lady Sif run on “Journey Into Mystery” will come to an end after 10-issues, each.

What exactly is the problem here, and how can it be fixed? Is it the fault of companies like Marvel and DC? You have to acknowledge, that, above everything else, these are major businesses, which provide products that are designed to attract to mass audiences, to make money, so they can make profits and continue doing what they’re doing. They need comics that sell. Comics with low-sale returns are inevitably canceled, which we are led to believe is the reason for “Journey Into Mystery” and “Red She-Hulk” being canceled. We can complain about there not being enough comic books out there for girls, but if the few comics that are out there are among the lowest selling, then can we blame these companies.

We can look at marketing. It is true that female starring comics do not receive as much ad-space and promotion as the “bigger name” comics (the Batmans and the Spider-Mans of the comic world). There is an audience out there, as well as an on-the-fence potential audience who need these comics brought to their attention. But as they traditionally do not sell as well, then the companies do not put much faith into them, and devote the ad space to a comic that is already guaranteed to sell well. It is a backwards system and a toxic cycle, depriving smaller comics of the attention they desperately need, just to guarantee that “Superman” is the number one seller that month instead of number three.

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Maybe it is a case of poor business decisions. “Journey Into Mystery” and “Red She-Hulk” were a part of the Marvel NOW! Initiative, a move inspired by the DC New 52 but without resetting continuity. It was mainly a series of title and number relaunches, with most comics starting off at issue #1 all over again. This is good business, as premiere issues are usually wonderful sellers and a great way to attract a lot of new readers in one go. But wait, these two comics were not renumbered, you say? Correct! Of approximately 32 monthly titles in Marvel NOW!, four of them kept their original numbering. In the case of “Wolverine and the X-Men” and “Avengers Assemble”, it meant “debuting” with #19 and #9, respectively. The Sif and She-Hulk comics, however, debuted with #646 and #58. Those are fairly large numbers, and look gigantic on the shelves of your local comic store in the Marvel section sitting next to all these super low numbered books.

As lacking as DC and Marvel are in comics for girls, there is even less female representation behind the scenes. When the number of active women writers among both companies can be counted on both hands, and taking into account the sheer quantity of comics DC/Marvel publish every single month, then that’s also a problem. And when you have all these men writing comics and so few women, in a male dominated workspace, bad things tend to brew when female characters come into play. All one has to do is look at the existence of the “Women in Refrigerators” argument (created by Gail Simone) and realize, “hey! There’s no male equivalent to this!”. Of course, I’m not saying that males can’t write good females. Chris Claremont is one of the best things to happen to women in comics, Brian Wood did a phenomenal job on “X-Men #1 and I’m sure he’ll keep up the excellent work, Joss Whedon is my favourite television writer, etc, etc. But, we still need more females making comics. They’ve been making some of the best ones, today. Just look at Kelly Sue DeConnick on “Captain Marvel”, Gail Simone on “Batgirl”, and of course, Kathryn Immonen on “Journey Into Mystery”.

I think I know why I so often write about female-starring comics. A good comic is a good comic and gender doesn’t change that, and it’s not like I don’t love a whole lot of male-starring comics, I do; but when I see these strong female comics struggle with sales, and eventually get canceled, it hurts a little. And if there is one thing I can do with this outlet, it is to bring more attention to comics that may need it. There is no reason why a smart, funny, exciting comic like “Journey Into Mystery” wasn’t attracting a lot of readers. It’s sad to say, that in 2013 an article asking people to give more female comics a chance is still relevant, but here we are. And the large companies need to change too. They need to instill more faith in their women characters as well as their readership of the same gender. Readers and publishers both need to change, and need to work closer together to ensure that the next time a great comic is released that just so happens to have a female protagonist, that it doesn’t get canceled after ten issues or have to worry about sales; that it can flourish in publication for many years, pleasing readers of all genders for a very long time.

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