Written by Russ Dobler
*PLEASE NOTE: this article contains spoilers regarding the new Thor. You have been warned.
The comic book industry has an enviable problem. While its once vast sea of publishing colleagues continues to suffer huge attrition rates, direct market sales of single issues and graphic novels were up in the first quarter of 2015 – almost 10% higher than those for the same period last year. If that trend continues, the business whose imminent death has been predicted routinely since it began in the 1930s will enjoy its fourth straight year of overall growth. And that’s not even counting the newly harnessed tool of digital distribution.
Surely some of that surge is due to an increased balancing of gender demographics, as women and girls now flock to fandoms once considered to be strictly male domains. The ubiquity of superhero films has forced the genre out of cramped convention halls and into the cultural consciousness. After seeing what the fuss is about, the populations once excluded from those venues are showing up in droves. A recent Eventbrite survey reveals that among those under 30, there’s now a 50/50 split between male and female convention-goers.
Quite a shift from the old stereotype of sweatpants-clad geeks reading back issues in their basements. And most producers of comic media don’t have a damn clue what to do about it.
Sure, they get lucky sometimes, like with DC Comics’ regular top 10 hit Harley Quinn, which follows the quirky exploits of the Joker’s bubbly but brutal sidekick. But many times, publishers just don’t seem to understand what a lot of these zealous converts are looking for.
Consider the surprising case of Spider-Gwen. The newly-introduced character hails from a different universe in which it was she, not Peter Parker, who absorbed the radiation from that infamous spider’s bite. Spider-Gwen was introduced in an anthology tie-in to a larger story about the more familiar wall-crawler, and wasn’t initially meant to be more than a throwaway, temporary supporting character.
But something clicked with readers – whether it was the inspired costume design by Robbi Rodriguez or Gwen Stacy’s strong portrayal by Emma Stone in the recent Amazing Spider-Man films – and fan demand created an ongoing series that was never planned. The first issue of Spider-Gwen sold over a quarter-million copies, almost 50% more units that month than the usually chart-topping Batman book. How could no one have anticipated this?
Part of the reason has to be confusion about what’s bringing women to comics in the first place. Early attempts by Marvel to capitalize on newly-attracted female fans resulted in pandering disasters like Models, Inc., and a team of teenaged versions of popular characters embarrassingly called “Her-oes.” Why is it so hard to believe that girls like superheroes for the same reasons boys do? Because they kick ass?
To Marvel’s credit, they seem to be coming around to this seemingly self-evident truth. Rumors are circulating that Spider-Gwen’s universe will expand to multiple titles in the fall. Despite cynical forecasts to the contrary, the company’s shown no sign of easing off the throttle on the new Thor, who was recently revealed to be the big guy’s sometimes love interest, Jane Foster. That’s probably because the current book sells about 20% better than the previous volume, which was written by the same author.
While it’s clear that female (and male) fans are desperate to see butt-kicking chicks in between the staples, whether these books are giving it to them or not is still a matter of perspective. Thor has been criticized for making too big a deal of the fact that she is a woman, rather than letting her go about the regular business of superheroing. The just-debuted, all-female A-Force title looks to rectify that.
“A-Force isn’t a book that dwells on the question of what it is to be woman and a hero — as if being the former somehow makes the latter infinitely more complicated,” Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso told Comic Book Resources. “The fact that the core cast is all women is a shading of the story and not the story,” he said.
The view from beyond the bubble isn’t always so rosy, though, as New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore recently took A-Force to task for boasting a roster full of porn star lookalikes. She came to this conclusion by flipping through the first issue and taking heed of the opinions of two 10-year-old boys, apparently never realizing that 10-year-old boys are going to see sex just about everywhere, and they’re not exactly the medium’s target audience anymore. I guess Lepore is in a different kind of time warp.
A-Force author G. Willow Wilson shot back, pointing out that the characters aren’t posed in the traditionally exploitative manners with breasts displayed and butts presented.
“None of them are in the sexually objectified contortions that have become standard issue in recent decades,” Wilson wrote on her blog. “They are posed as heroes,” she said.
Maybe it’s forgivable when outsiders don’t notice such incremental change, though, especially when comics merchandising seems to be even further behind the times than publishers. The well-intentioned but tone deaf “DC Super Hero Girls” initiative will soon create action figures strictly for females, as if they were somehow prohibited from playing with the ones that already exist.
Though maybe such a thing is needed, as the famous #wheresGamora pointed out toys of the only female Guardian of the Galaxy were nowhere to be found following last summer’s smash-hit film. Black Widow is also suspiciously absent from Avengers merchandise, and if you believe an anonymous tipster at The Mary Sue, it’s because Disney – Marvel’s now-parent company – feel like they have the girls locked down with princess stuff and don’t need to appease them with actions figures. Yeah, I shuddered a little, too.
Of course all this isn’t to say that girls have to like girl characters, or that they can’t like the same characters boys do.
But I’m sure it must be nice for women to finally see some faces that look like theirs being heroic and not just supportive. And for us dudes who’ve had that pleasure forever, it’s cool to see some different stories told in a medium that too often gets stuck in repetitious ruts. Let’s hope the publishers can continue fine-tuning their approach, and that the movies and merchandise will eventually follow suit.