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Committed: Women in Comics

Apparently there are journalists who are so naive as to think that the reason more women comic book creators aren’t successful is because they don’t feel comfortable with the aggressive subject matter of superhero comic books. It has been suggested lately by a number of people (who should know better) that the main reason women aren’t well known, mainstream comic book artists, writers and creators is because women prefer stories about their feelings with more dialogue and less action.

It is offensive to be told that the reason we aren’t successful in any work environment is basically because we want to talk about feelings more. Ridiculous. For many years this cliched excuse has been used for why women shouldn’t work in all sorts of environments, including upper-management and politics. I once went to a talk about comic books where a well-known comic book store owner explained at length that women want “comics about feelings and love stories.” There is a hell of a difference between demanding an emotionally complex story and wanting to read a comic book about people talking about their bloody feelings (shoot me now.)

Yes, I agree that I would like to meet more female creators at Comic-Con International next week, but then again it would be nice to meet more female graphic designers, female tv writers, female comedians, or female upper-management. Comic books aren’t the only area in which women aren’t as successful as men.

No, the reason women creators are under-represented in comic books is the same reason they’re under-represented in many more work areas; There aren’t a lot of powerful females in a whole slew of industries. But no one in banking or television or comedy is saying that it is because women really want to have more emotional, talking content. That would be outrageously sexist. It is simply that women weren’t always equal in the work place and it is taking a long time for them to become equally represented in all areas. (Dan Harmon says it better than I can when he said “we have to stop thinking of it as a quota thing and think of it as a common-sense thing.”) We still live in a sexist environment, this is surprise to no one except the people who have been pretending that we don’t.

My personal feelings about “what women want in comic books” is probably pretty close to what all sorts of comic book readers want; interesting, well-crafted stories. Sometimes we want violent superhero battles and sometimes we don’t, different moods elicit different comic books. A healthy comfort level with some fantasy aggression is a prerequisite to any woman hoping to grow into a functioning adult in our current society. We need to feel safe and comfortable in any work environment, and in order to do this we need to stop being expected to wear proverbial pink petticoats, while metaphorically fanning ourselves in horror when hearing swear words.

Personally I’ve never understood the things that I am supposed to be interested in just because I’m female. For example, I find most women’s magazines kind of depressing. Why would women want to read fashion magazines instead of comic books? Maybe it is just me and the kind of body I have, but growing up, it was always a lot easier for me to identify physically with the women in comic books than the women I saw in fashion shoots. In women’s fashion magazines you get fashionable young giants, starved to the point of illness, wearing clothes that cost an arm and a leg. In comic books you get voluptuous, muscular women wearing weird, unique costumes they made themselves. I love making things and my weight is average, of course I prefer superheroes to supermodels.

There are underwear models with bodies like superheroes, just as there are superheroes with bodies like underwear models (both male and female.) But the pertinent fact is not how they look, as much as what they do, (or are depicted doing…) A few years ago, some supermodel was involved in some kind of drug scandal and my dad blew up. I couldn’t see why he cared, but he pointed out that young women aspire to be like models, and what they do for a living is look good. When the only the only action they are publicly seen to take is unhealthy and self-destructive, this doesn’t exactly set a very good example. It was an idea I had never considered, that young women would be influenced by models. Growing up I took my cues from superheroes and I’m glad that I did. Helping the weak, protecting the vulnerable, fighting evil… these are all admirable actions taken by strong male and female superheroes.

Years ago I published article which highlighted my ten favorite moments of incredibly strong women depicted in comic books. Treat this as a recommended reading list for anyone wondering if women can be powerful in comics.

Top Ten Biggest Bad-Ass Women in Comics

1. Elektra in Elektra: Assassin
You know I love this book, so I’ll try not to go on. There is a tangible wrench as she breaks though the drug haze to escape from the mental institution. This is the first clue that Elektra is more powerful than anyone anticipated, particularly her enemies. By the second chapter, she’s killing SHIELD agents, deflecting bullets, slicing and dicing and throwing opponents back with her silent shout (which hits like a mack truck). Ultimately she saves the world, maneuvering her man into the presidency and beating back the forces of the Beast.

2. Phoenix in the Dark Phoenix Saga
The journey from insipid and unsure Marvel Girl to Phoenix levels of raw power is a marvelous thing to behold. Watching Jean Grey gradually discover (and finally embrace) the various aspects of her limitless power is intensely satisfying. While her character has gone through many changes over the years, in this book at least, her power is her own.

3. Dara in The Sword
For their part in shaping my life, the top two positions have to go to Elektra and Phoenix, but in The Sword, Dara really blew my mind. All of the Luna Brothers comics have impressed me with their depiction of women and examination of the gender experiences. Now in The Sword, they’ve created a woman who overcomes the limitations of a crippling accident, then in undertaking a mission to avenge the murder of her family, she becomes a true warrior. I

4. Wonder Woman in Kingdom Come
Until Kingdom Come, I thought that Wonder Woman was a somewhat out-dated concept. Although I always loved her back story as an Amazon princess warrior, I rarely felt it in her stories. But in Kingdom Come she really stepped up, telling a placatory Superman “If they want to act like warriors… I’ll show them war.” Superman might be the central hero in this book, but it’s Wonder Woman who brings the battle to the story. She is fearsome and decisive, every bit Amazon warrior royalty.

5. Robin in The Dark Knight Returns
This little girl’s got balls. Carrie Kelley jumps right in and becomes Robin all on her own, with not a single bit of encouragement from anyone. She sees the need, and decides to do something about it. Basically, she saves the big guy’s life and does it without help or encouragement from anyone. Carrie is The Dark Knight’s polar opposite in every way, and she fills in the gaps for him, with her youth, energy and enthusiasm.

6. Jakita Wagner in Planetary
In the first issue of Planetary, Jakita jumped out of a helicopter, landed with an earth shattering bang, and her role as the mover and shaker on the team was firmly established. This is truly a superwoman, she’s tough, brave and incredibly strong. Wrestling beasts down and punching them through buildings is her idea of a good time and she relishes the experience.

7. Tulip in Preacher
Throughout the series, Tulip is always Jessie’s equal partner, fighting against his need to shelter her from danger. She is strong, skilled, and smart, saving his life again and again. Pitting herself against the most horrible enemies, she isn’t fearless, but her fury carries her pretty far.

8. Promethea in Promethea
Promethea is beautiful and powerful in many incarnations and it is this versatility that makes the character such a powerful role model. Each one has strengths which make her battle style different, but my favorite moment is when the Stacia/Grace incarnation battles a swarm of demons (the Goetia.) By devouring them, making them her own, a part of her she is willingly accepting her own demonic tendencies and embracing them.

9. Tara Chace in Queen & Country
Tara’s a tough, gritty government agent, so her being a bad-ass is a given. Her intense commitment to this job is almost a prerequisite to her success and survival, so it’s not surprising to see her deal with any given situation. The shock is always in her joy, her love of what could almost seem like an untenable career. Clearly she gains tremendous satisfaction from her ability to deal with the untenable, and it’s when she is fighting for her life that she seems most present in her life.

10. Kitty Pryde in Astonishing X-Men
I never really liked Kitty much. From the minute she appeared, she seemed ineffectual and gimmicky. I wanted her to step up in a way that never seemed to happen. When Astonishing X-Men started, I was following the artist and writer, not the characters. But Whedon did something incredible. He made Pryde an adult, but still herself. She had massive resources, depths of strength and that could carry her team. In the final story, it’s Pryde that saves the earth and her determination and sacrifice was fantastic.

32 Comments

i enjoyded seeing tulip o’hare on the list but what about my all time favorite supporting character Deena Pilgrim? She is bad ass!

I hadn’t read Promethea, Preacher, or Planetary before you made that list the first time, but now that I have, I’m in so much agreement. Also, I have Queen and Country ordered and will be at my house in a week or two, so I look forward to that.

Rogue is more kick ass than Kitty. I remember jumping up and down when I saw her whoop every X Man put in front of her in X Men: Evolution.

It is offensive to be told that the reason we [women] aren’t successful in any work environment is basically because we want to talk about feelings more… But no one in banking or television or comedy is saying that [women are under-represented] because women really want to have more emotional, talking content. That would be outrageously sexist.

One thing that your article didn’t really address is that by and large, women DO want to have more emotional, talking content to their lives then men. Several studies have shown that different parts of the brain ‘light up’ in the different genders. Men are more visual, women more verbal – generally. i don’t think that it is sexist to say that women want ‘more emotional, talking content’ in general. This may make them less successful then men in certain roles. This does not mean that women are less valuable, just differently constructed.

Certainly, they are able to have success in comics & other parts of life.

Also, to your point about ‘For example, I find most women’s magazines kind of depressing. Why would women want to read fashion magazines instead of comic books?’ i’m not sure why either. i think that these magazines pander to the lowest common denominator. However, i would imagine that women make up a huge majority of the sales of these magazines. It does seem that women are more drawn to ‘women’s magazines’ than comic books. Perhaps there is something inborn in a woman that is different than a man.

Nice list. Here’s some honorary mentions…..

11. Abby Cable – in Swamp Thing ( from Alan Moores run). With no superpowers or anything she holds her own in some pretty crazy situations. Heck, she even goes to hell and back and doesn’t miss a beat.

12. Silk Specter II in Watchman (yeah yeah I know another Alan Moore character). Funny enough this character is the one I think is our “eyes and ears” in the wild world of The Watchmen. Even though I’m a male I relate more to this female character and her life and outlook on things.

Kate Spencer?

I feel like the discrepancy between men and women comic artist and writers is of a different nature than other professions like upper management, designers, and even comedians. I think it is in a lot of ways much more overt, and in other. As a guy who regular goes to comic stores, I am pretty ashamed of a lot of the stuff in comic stores. Its all ass and tits on every cover featuring a woman. Unrealistically large ass and tits, and the tiniest waists in the world. Women in comics are often worse than the women in fashion magazines.

I mean, in short, I think its a result of largely male readership getting what they want (or what they don’t really care for? I don’t know), and women being hesitant to enter a world so focused on women as objects.

Love this post! But…no Batwoman? Oracle? Black Canary? :-(

Mike Loughlin

July 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Some of my favorite super-heroines & the like:

1. Suicide Squad (Ostrander & Yale version): In addition to reworking Batgirl as Oracle, John Ostrander created my favorite woman in the DCU, Amanda Waller. She takes no guff from anyone, including Batman. Other strong characters from that series include Vixen, Black Orchid, Poison Ivy, Enchantress, Nightshade, and The Duchess (who? It was a semi-mystery for the first couple years of the books existence).

2. Hawkworld: You know how Hawkgirl was one of the best characters on JLU? They based her on the Shayera Thal of Ostrander & Truman’s Hawkworld. She remains my second favorite woman in the DCU, although they killed here off a few years ago.

3. X-Force/ X-Statix’s U-Go Girl: she was straight-up cool, and dominated The Orphan in their relationship. Venus DeMilo, Lacuna, & Dead Girl were also good characters in the most subversive series Marvel published in the early ’00s.

4. Kabuki: She’s a very introspective character, but can clearly take down anyone else in the room. No one reads Kabuki for the action, but she’s a capable, powerful woman even trapped in a mental institution.

I’m surprised you didn’t add in Oracle or Black Canary.

Another GREAT Wonder Woman story is The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka. That’s what made me fall in love with Wonder Woman all over again.

Peter David’s Supergirl, and subsequent Fallen Angel, were also two very well written series.

What, no Renee Montoya?

Also, my understanding of it was linking superhero comics to pro wrestling, the “soap opera for men”, with testosterone-driven environments, disputes are dealt with by violence and more violence, just enough melodrama to make up care for the action scenes, that sort of thing. Its just something that generally appeals to men(not that it ONLY appeals to men, big difference), like how Twilight generally appeals to women(which hey, what are the odds, is all about “the feelings”).

“Generally” being the word, like how those female magazines “generally” appeal to women, not that men just straight up can’t pick them up, or that ALL women(including yourself) are interested.

But I do understand the appeal of superheroes can be broader, and appeal to everyone. Even James Bond caught the attention of a female friend of mine, who wanted to be like him. Not in the “sex with everybody” kind of way, but in that “I’m in complete control/have power over every situation of my life” that James Bond carries, that confident swagger that even in the middle of a death trap, he has just the right gadget or idea to get out and save the world, with a snappy one-liner to go with it.

I agree that women are underrepresented in… well, everything. And I agree that the MAIN reason that this is so is because of sexism.

That is pretty undisputable. DC comics has Gail Simone as a female writer of renown and Marvel has Majorie Liu. And that is about it for mainstream comics. This is a travesty. The comic industry is hostile towards female creators and female readers. This seems to fit everything i have read and experienced about the industry.

But I don’t agree with your premise.

I’ve read several books recently about differences between gender. And one of them seems to be that women gravitate towards social issues (complicated emotional interactions and etc) and men gravitate toward more goal oriented issues (ie ‘winning’ at things). And this fits most people’s ‘common sense’ ideas of gender.

So the notion that “women want comics about feelings and love stories,” (social and interpersonal) makes total sense to me. In the same way that guys want comics about duels and great feats (winning).

But these are generalizations. If guys only liked comic books about guys punching each other and girls only liked comics about talking and romance then it would be a hell of a lot easier to sell comics. The issue is a bit more complex than that.

But I wouldn’t say that the maxim ‘women are less interested in super hero comics,’ doesn’t have an element of truth to it. Because it does. Now, we could certainly try to analyze why this seems to be true. But to act like it isn’t is, I think, false.

For the record, I don’t think its sexist to say “Women and men tend to be different”. In fact, you gotta be damn near ignorant to straight up deny that.

@Jeremy: Yeah or you could distill the last four paragraphs of what I said into one sentence. Ug. I can be needlessly verbose.

When you look outside of the Big 2 there are a lot of women in comics who are badass:

Red Sonja
Lady Death
Witchblade
Sharona Jackson/Rapture (Image)
Alice (Resident Evil Series)
Cimmeron (Eclipse)

I do think there’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction in people to assume that anywhere that women are under-represented is down to sexism.

I’m sure sexism is often a factor, but there are also many others.

– Women are generally more likely to want to stay at home and look after children than men (possibly in part a result of sexism, but also partly biology).
– Some pastimes (comics included) attract geeks and women are much less likely to be geeks than men.

Even when sexism is a factor it can be in various different forms that aren’t necessarily to do with the profession:
– The way parents raise kids
– The way schools teach kids
– Peer pressure from other children to fit into your gender stereotype.

Great piece, thank you so much. I agree with so much of this. ^_^

Women aren’t looking for touchy feely, we’re asking for more humanity. Kicking ass is great, but when it’s all kicking ass for no reason you end up with a Michael Bay movie where everyone stops caring by the time the sequel comes out.

Sure I loved watching Nightwing and Oracle skirt around their (destined!) romance, but I also hungered to learn about why Dick never felt at home at Gotham (a detail that creates the foundation for his move to Bludhaven, pretty freakin important if you ask me). I’ve never laughed so hard as when Black Canary and Huntress sat ontop of a building together making fun of Batman. The most emotionally wrecked I”ve been by a comic came during DCs Cataclysm and seeing Batman (for the only time I can recall) feel helpless and then go on to throw himself into the fray like never before. Seeing that growth is what makes me want to read. Who wants to read the same thing week after week?

All of these things can be interpreted as “emotions”, but it’s more accurate to say that these are “motivations.” I hunger for the “why” of each character. Without the “why” the “how” of it all doesn’t make much sense.

Based on what some of these comments are saying I’m a woman because I like stories with a strong emotional or social issues hook rather than a man (which I’m fairly sure I am).

Henchman21Gary

July 14, 2011 at 9:12 am

The reason there aren’t more women interested in comics doesn’t have anything to do with subject matter, tastes, or even the inherent differences between men and women.
The reason there aren’t more women reading comics (that we know of, at least) is the same reason why it’s taken so long for society to accept comics as a valid storytelling medium: because they’ve been typically associated with nerd culture for the last 30 years. Because reading comic books implies that you started puberty late, have little-to-no social skills, posess little-to-no masculine traits, and have essentially become a homely shut-in. It’s easy to see why none of these qualities are desirable, and why women are repulsed by said qualities (which harkens back to our DNA).
Of course, as time has passed, all of these stereotypes about comic books and the people they are associated with have been… I can’t think of the word. But they’ve proven… not… am… is… true.

Saying that the reason there isn’t a larger female audience in the comic book medium, or more women working in comics, ISN’T this, is completely… well, there is a lot of validity in any argument made about this subject, but it’s kind of ridiculous to ignore the history of the public perception of comic books and not say that this has a lot to do with it.

Of course, having every female protagonist in a comic book look like a female porn star cosplaying, portrayed as leaving the reader without even the IDEA that hair grows on their body anywhere except for their eyebrows and scalp, and having a personality which resembles that of either a man with boobs or a space occupier (because you CAN’T have a comic book without tits and ass, just as long as they don’t say anything which assists the story at all; a woman saying something of value? Riduculous! Go back to your corner of the panel and eat your corndog), doesn’t exactly give the impression that the comic book industry is TRYING to attract female readers…

@Jennifer Thanks for taking the time to write a coherent reply to some of these puzzling comments.

If I read another comment telling me that I’d rather read a story where people sit around and talk about their feelings, I’m going to Hulk-Out.

I am reminded of the dumbass newspaper critic that said girls don’t like fantasy, when talking about GAME OF THRONES. George R. R. Martin has lots of female fans.

Yes, statistically action movies draw a larger percentage of males than romantic comedies. But that doesn’t stop millions of women from enjoying action movies. My two best female friends like action movies and cop shows more than I do.

Just because a TWILIGHT could attract, say, 10 million women fans, it doesn’t mean that an action movie (or superhero movie) can’t attract 2 million women fans.

If you’re wondering why there aren’t more women reading superhero comics, you should also be wondering why fewer and fewer men are reading superhero comics (maybe it’s because: while (superhero) comics should be good they usually aren’t)

To anyone saying “well, maybe there aren’t more women comics readers because their brains don’t like pictures” – y’ever hear of these two little things called shojo and josei? They’re two categories of manga aimed directly at female readers (teens/preteens and women, respectively) and they’re quite popular. The collected volumes make up about half of the Japanese comic charts every week and the monthly anthology mags routinely sell at numbers that American comic publishers would give away a small portion of their souls to reach. And while shojo and josei are best known for their corny romances, there are plenty of fantasy, adventure, and thriller (psychological or otherwise) titles as well.

Unless you want to stretch things further and say “Japanese women brains are built different than American women brains,” y’might want to trim down the “man brain like pictures, woman brain like words” theory.

but …. but my evo-psych!

Your writing style is really hard to read. Check out the first two sentences. Try reading that out loud.

I’m curious about your ideas but I didn’t want to take the time to decipher this so I stopped pretty quickly.

To anyone saying “well, maybe there aren’t more women comics readers because their brains don’t like pictures”

Has anyone ever suggested that? I’ve certainly never heard that one before.

@ DanCJ:

Only reactionaries bent on making a point would suggest that. Real people know different.

@Angelica Brenner: So your argument as to why women couldn’t possibly have different tastes in media than men is so give examples of literature specifically tailored for women?

Am I the only one that sees a problem with the logic here?

My argument is that, ‘yes there likely is some validity to the statement ‘women like comics about feelings and love stories.’ And then you give Shojo as an example. Shojo comics are comics which expressly delve into feelings and emotions. They are tailored for women. And, as you have said, women seem to buy them.

Gee, now isn’t that odd.

Granted, plenty of women also read Shonnen. But how much you wanna bet that the percentage of male/females that read shonnen is one sided?

Look. I’m on your side here. I think that the American comics industry should court female readers. Or at least make it less hostile toward them.

But to discount the content in mainstream comics (which is, admittedly, very violent) and further the perceived content, is just silly. Girls don’t read comics because they do not think they will find something they will like in them. It’s been shown time and again. I mean, even on this site, CSBG’s Kelly Thompson, has questioned women about their thoughts on American Comics and overwhelmingly the response seems to be that girls do not think they will like them.

That doesn’t mean comics don’t have anything to offer women. Or that they wouldn’t like them. It just means the perceived subject matter DOES play a role in what women read.

This is my opinion and I don’t think it should be just discounted off hand. I think it is fairly reasonable.

Now why aren’t we talking about what we can do to attract female readers in stead of point fingers at us guys who ‘just don’t understand?’

By the way, i would love it if more women were into comic books & worked in the medium. i wish there were more interest in actual comics [not movies, video games, etc] by both sexes.

i also wished there was more stuff that was good & didn’t pander to lower impulses. There is plenty of good stuff, but also plenty of bad stuff.

As someone who’s friends with a woman trying to break into NYC stand-up, I’ll vouch for the idea that the content of that scene actually IS a turn-off to many aspiring women. She’s found it immensely frustrating, because most of the men who tell sexist jokes don’t leave it on the stage.

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