Once More Into the Breach

Just to get it on record, and because I seek mutual understanding and have a sometimes irrational hope for it:

I think superhero comics are, by a vast majority, written by men (with the token exceptions of Gail Simone and a couple of dabbling novelists), drawn by men (with the token exception of sometimes Amanda Conner… and really, if female artists are going to draw and/or ink the same boobalicious portrayals — I’m looking at you, Rachel Dodson — what does their gender matter?), marketed to men, sold to men, sold by men, and read by men.

I found it astounding that anyone would be surprised by or object to these statements. They are the way the world is currently, BUT saying “this is” doesn’t mean I’m saying “this always will be” or “this should be”. (Although I find it unlikely that superhero comics, unless they change so much the definition itself comes into question, will ever be attractive to the majority of female readers, because their classic themes and tropes involve adolescent male ideas of power and justice. As this discussion about the longevity of female-led titles shows, it’s also very difficult to separate the gender-based factors from other industry pressures.)

Also, superhero comics are a niche market within the much wider medium of comics. Mistaking the genre for the whole is a problem that’s been happening for at least 15 years, so I don’t expect to eradicate it single-handedly, but it still grates.

I’d be interested to see existing superhero comics change to be so girl-friendly that they’d have a majority female audience… but to get there, I think you’d have to remake so many levels of the current direct market (creators, superhero company executives, distributors, retailers) that the world would no longer resemble the one we know. And it’s easier just to publish something like Queen Bee (fundamentally a superhero comic) at a “real” book publisher and sell it through bookstores.

I did not say, nor do I believe, that women criticizing superhero comics for being sexist should shut up. Anyone drawing that conclusion from the above is responsible for their own logic; it’s not mine. I know women read superhero comics. There just aren’t enough of them for them to be an effective economic block within that particular niche market. So if they want to effect change, they need to find other methods than the traditional economic pressure, like raising awareness, as they’re doing.

Sexism hurts us all as a society. It’s worth criticizing on those grounds alone.

I sympathize with those women who are gun-shy and battle-scarred to the extent that they sometimes lash out at those who don’t agree with all of their points. I can also understand why some might confuse “If asked, I would advise a different course of action” with “you’re doing it wrong! you shouldn’t do that!” It’s a subtle distinction that easily gets lost in the overheated discussion of a topic that means so much to some. And frankly, I suspect I’ve been online longer than some of these girls have been alive (sorry, Alan, your guesses were way off), so I understand that we have very different perspectives (although I wish some wouldn’t shoot their allies). (I was glad to see some got what I was saying.)

Personally, I do think that so much energy and passion would be better directed elsewhere than criticizing the same comics for doing the same things month after month, but that’s my personal opinion, not a policy statement nor a condemnation. I was where many of them were once, and now I have different concerns that motivate me. I’m taking my own advice here: I’m not interested, so I don’t read them. This should go without saying, but they’re entitled to keep publishing and reading and saying whatever they wish.

(Although I would really like to see what some of them thought about Go Girl!, the only comic I know of that’s unquestionably a superhero comic made by women for girls. But we’re not really talking about superheroes; we’re talking about DC and Marvel superheroes, because many of those requesting more girl-friendly superhero comics want them with the familiar characters they have a love/hate relationship with.)

I do think that in the long run, it’s better for everyone (including the blog writers themselves) to focus on the positive (what books are worth recommending?) instead of the negative (that statue sucks!). I created and named this website to celebrate the positive, because I think you can achieve more good talking about what’s worth celebrating instead of bitching about the negative. I fail in that regard myself frequently, but I still aim to do better.

All that said, I think the most useful campaign to get some real change in superhero books? One to have Dan Didio and Joe Quesada replaced.

I leave you with a quote that resonated with me from Molly Haskell’s introduction to her From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies:

…sometimes it’s easier to curse the darkness than to light a candle, especially when the candles proliferate and vary enormously in brilliance, beauty, and illuminative power. Women directors have increased tenfold, but some are a good deal more interesting than others. Some are more feminist than others. And there’s no invariable correlation between the good, the true, and the feminist.

I really appreciate the way she describes herself as a “critic first and a feminist second.”

32 Responses to “Once More Into the Breach”

  1. ADD Says:

    “Also, superhero comics are a niche market within the much wider medium of comics. Mistaking the genre for the whole is a problem that’s been happening for at least 15 years, so I don’t expect to eradicate it single-handedly, but it still grates.”

    Agreed. I used to think it was just ignorance that caused some people to say “comics” when they mean “North American superhero comics,” but now I think it’s more that those who do this recognize how marginalized superhero comics increasingly are as the world more and more embraces the artform, and now they misuse the word “comics” out of resentment, aggravation and fear. Sorry, fanboys, the battle’s already over. “Mainstream comics” are pretty much everything BUT superhero comics, out there in the real world.

  2. Johanna Says:

    I think that’s a bit of a reach, Alan. I suspect it’s just shorthand that makes sense to them, because those are the comics they most think about.

  3. Elayne Riggs Says:

    J, I think part of the problem is that you’re using stats from a DOZEN YEARS AGO to bolster your point about superhero comics in the 21st century. The stats may still apply, or they may not. But they’re old enough to be seriously suspect (particularly by readers who’ve come into the genre since they were compiled) and render your “statements” more speculation than established fact.

  4. John Says:

    I like your blog because it focuses on the positive. I can find the stuff that is awful and understand why it is awful all on my own, but finding the good stuff is always easier with a little guidance and yours is helpful.

    Although I very much enjoy some of the spirited commentary about comic sexism, it is a bit like flogging a dead horse to me – and I find it kind of like gay people who picket the Catholic Church for inclusion. I just don’t understand why you want to be part of something so heinous that seems to hate you so much.

    Also, I think that to focus on the sexism issue all the time is to become too industry insider-obsessed. That really doesn’t help the cause, because it directs the issues to a narrow few titles in the eyes of those people who aren’t on the inside, aren’t regular fans. If comics in general are going to survive as a vital medium and cast off the sexism that dogs certain segments of it, it’s going to be through a wider audience that isn’t interested in insider bickering but is interested in finding out what’s good and worth checking out.

    It’s fine to preach to the choir, but some people have to reach outside the chapel and I think you do that and I appreciate it very much. I never did like the closed universe of the comic book industry and appreciate those who like to do some outreach beyond its borders.

  5. ADD Says:

    “I think that’s a bit of a reach, Alan. I suspect it’s just shorthand that makes sense to them, because those are the comics they most think about.”

    I’m sure you’re right, maybe I am just a little (!) thin-skinned on the issue. I’ve stopped reading quite a few writers who I used to enjoy because of my perception that they are being deliberately ignorant, though…

  6. Elayne Riggs Says:

    “I just don’t understand why you want to be part of something so heinous that seems to hate you so much.”

    Or, to turn it around, I don’t understand why something is so heinous as to hate me so much for wanting to be a part of it.

  7. John Says:

    “I don’t understand why something is so heinous as to hate me so much for wanting to be a part of it.”

    Me either. Thankfully, it’s just superhero comics and not an actual body that wields any power or influence on anything important.

  8. ryan_cf Says:

    With all due respect, I understand that the statistics that Johanna produced were not current. She said as much, and reflected on their age. But she DID provide statistics, which is more than what anyone else has brought to the table. Rather than dismissing the statistics, or superhero comics in general (nothing important? I doubt Sony would agree as Spidey’s made them more than the GDP of most nations), the statistics have to be instructive of something. If nothing else, do the numbers support anecdotal evidence of who most customers see visiting a comic shop today? Is the audience different today than in 1992? Is there any statistical, or anecdotal evidence to suggest that the numbers have changed that much?

    Johanna’s angle of finding and sharing Comics Worth Reading seems far more constructive than the endless deriding of comics that don’t match a reader’s specific sensibilities. I assure you, advocating well executed comics makes it a lot easier for a Big 2 reader like myself to take seriously than condemning an entire genre for the sins of a few creators and editors.

  9. Lyle Masaki Says:

    Thanks for a very thorough and well considered post. My frustration with your recent posts on the topic was that there were a lot of positions you stopped short of saying or not saying, so its very nice to have it all clearly laid out.

  10. Johanna Says:

    Elayne, if female readership has increased by any serious percentage, I’d be very surprised. Of course, I welcome further information on the subject… but without more current data, we’re all just guessing. And regardless of whether men are 90% or 92% or 85% of the audience… they’re the large majority, a point that I don’t think anyone can deny. (And in your reversed statement, it’s not that superhero comics hate women, it’s that they mostly ignore them that seems to set off the most hackles.)

    Lyle, it’s due to a history of frequenting discussion fora, I think… I expect people to ask questions (instead of jumping to conclusions) and further develop the conversation mutually. I know, it’s a silly expectation, and I should know better from experience, but it keeps tripping me up.

    (And thank you, Ryan.)

  11. Anun Says:

    I’m with you on how the situation stands now with superhero comics in that they are primarily created and consumed by men, but I’m not sure what making them “girl-friendly” means to people or how it would cripple them to an unrecognizable degree if some of the sexist subtext and posing was removed. Sometimes, it’s purely a subjective thing.

    For example, I’ve seen Gail Simone simultaneously praised for her WiR site and reviled for the very intense violence she writes in BOP. I find Manhunter as perfect of a superhero comic for women that I can think of, yet I know it’s not your cup of tea. I’ve seen the same analysis of sexist subtext applied to both Brad Meltzer’s and Greg Rucka’s writing when in my eyes, they couldn’t be more different.

    So basically, I think people are trying to articulate exactly what walks the line perfectly between genders, but right now, they’re limited to only being able to say for sure what they don’t like. And that’s frustrating in the short term, but I’m hoping it leads to better awareness amongst the companies and creators. Somehow, HEROES has captured the female demographic and handily too. Non-comics reading women like superheroes. Now how can superhero comics make that connection work better?

  12. Johanna Says:

    That is a key question. I’m reminded of the once-frequent debate around what it meant to be new-reader-friendly. Some insisted that a new reader simply had to understand the material, and that was true of most comics. But there, the key factor is really “can a new reader enjoy this comic?” That rules out your continuity porn and never-ending crossovers, for example.

    In this case, I’d say the second level is not just “are women not actively offended by this material?” but also “do women have any reason to enjoy this material?”

    If HEROES has a strong female component to its audience, I’d attribute that more to soap opera-style plotlines, pretty people, and being available for free than the superhero-style content… but what do I know, I don’t watch it because it doesn’t have enough diversity of female characters. :)

  13. comics212 » Blog Archive » Incidentally… Says:

    […] internet can go batshit insane about normal, everyday issues without me, warms my heart. Thanks to Johanna for picking up the […]

  14. John Says:

    “If HEROES has a strong female component to its audience, I’d attribute that more to soap opera-style plotlines, pretty people, and being available for free than the superhero-style content”

    That rocks!

  15. Willow Says:

    Personally, I do think that so much energy and passion would be better directed elsewhere than criticizing the same comics for doing the same things month after month

    If you switch it from ‘positive female portrayals’ in super hero comics to ‘positive people of color portrayals‘ do you still think that world should be left to the white men between 18-45 and people of color should create their own ghetto slice of the super hero pie? Because nothing is going to change because blacks, latinos, asians and women have no true power to change anything when fighting against the great capitalist regime?

    Rich white boys will be boys? And their toys will always be their toys?

    Is this like segregation? Separate but equal? ‘Cause if I’m misunderstanding you please make yourself clearer.

  16. David Oakes Says:

    Since I have a dog in the “Comic Book Gender Statistics” fight, I thought people might like more current numbers.

    Or not, since women comprise just over 10% of people claiming to be “Superhero Comic Book Readers”, and only 20% of all “Comic Book Readers”.

    (Disclaimers: Self-selected surveys ditributed at a hybrid Comic Book/Anime convention in the Phoenix, AZ, metro area.)

    (Disclaimers disclaimer: These numbers have held steady in half a dozen surveys since 1998, across two states, and at comic cons and comic shops.)

    I will however offer that females comprised 15% of those readers who said they started reading comics with Superheroes. So comics can attract a female audience, they just have problems keeping them. (Superheroes were also the largest percentage for any starting genre. So even if they are not “mainstream” they remain “gateway” into the hobby. So simply dismissing them in favor of Manga isn’t reasonable either.)

  17. Johanna Says:

    Regarding the racism/sexism attempted comparison, you may want to read this.

    And yes, I would give the same advice to a black guy who was disturbed by the racism in superhero comics: there are plenty of good alternatives to read out there, would you like some recommendations? have you considered making your own or supporting those who do?

    Saying “that’s an easier, more rewarding attempt that makes more sense to me personally” doesn’t equal “leaving the world to the white man”. It’s not “separate but equal” but bailing from the sinking, outdated ship of superhero comics into a much more fruitful world with a lot more options. In my opinion.

  18. Willow Says:

    Digital Femme’s comment is specifically about the MJ statue and not about the comic industry as a whole or my particular point about superhero comics.

    I was asking you if you were advocating Separate But Equal. And if you didn’t think it’d be offensive because it was couched in terms of gender while that phrase is heavily loaded in terms of race.

    To you it’s bailing from a sinking ship. Personally it reminds me of the blacks escaped America’s racial politics and dangers to go live in France and/or other places where they’d feel counted as human beings.

    But perhaps that’s simply because of how I’m reading your tone. And you do admit to having a certain tone because superhero comics aren’t your thing.

    Howver, now I have my answer, you advocate that I and others like me stop trying to see ourselves in the comics that first captivated our attention and branch out to do our own separate thing.

    This is not a policy I can personally agree to. But thank you for letting me know exactly where you stand.

  19. ryan_cf Says:

    I think it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest that Johanna is suggesting “separate but equal”, drudging up such a loaded phrase. Attacking her as a secret agent of patriarchy who just-doesn’t-get-it is absurd given the nature of the vast, vast majority of her content.

    Nor am I clear on, exactly, what point Willow is trying to make. At what point did Johanna suggest that she didn’t wish to see stronger portrayals of female characters? Does having working experience at the Big 2 and having years of experience critiquing comics (and having abandoned the Big 2) count for nothing?

    It’s a far cry from pointing out reasons how or why something may be a status quo from actually supporting that status quo. I would hope everyone could respect the difference.

    I’m curious as to what positive examples you would cite of what you’d like to see more of in comics. It’s pretty clear what’s not working, perhaps more gray as to what a majority can agree is offensive. But what IS working is completely left out of the debate.

    “We’re being left out” isn’t much of a rallying cry. Spending your money on stuff that works for you speaks louder than anything. What could Superman or Batman or Wolverine do for you from your perspective to bring you in as a reader? What would indicate to you that female readership is receiving equal respect?

    Honestly, I’ve been reading this discussion for a week and I don’t think I’ve heard one constructive comment regarding how superhero comics could actually meet the expectations of the folks choosing to lob complaints.

    And if you want examples of minorities taking the reins, I suggest that you read up on black or latino filmmaking from the dawn of the industry to the present, and the fiercely independent methods used (but whose distribution has never been equal). Hop over here and check out this link:


    It might sound a bit familiar.

  20. Lisa Lopacinski Says:

    Let’s look at the larger picture here. It’s not just American Superhero Comics – it’s society. In the U.S. comics are made by men for men, it’s been that way for a while. Women read novels – I’ve heard this exact phrase come out of the mouths of both men and women who come into my store. In the US TV soap operas are a “woman” thing while comics are a “man” thing. That’s our current culture. We have a HUGE section of all-age comics, many of which are specifically targeted for girls (Babysitter’s Club, Barbie Cinemanga, Sabrina…) but we have moms come in the store often and tell their young girls, while brother or dad is looking for a comic, that “There isn’t anything in this store for girls.” Even when I show moms the girl books many just refuse to accept that her daughter is going to bother reading a comic book. Just like boys play with GI Joes and girls play with Barbies, families and culture still try to keep women and girls away from comics.

    So, having women read comics and discuss their displeasure about how women are portrayed in those comics – that’s a big step in the right direction. It’s women actually admitting that there’s nothing wrong with reading superhero comics. Sure, the content might not always be what women would like to see, but the fact that they’re seeing it at all is a good sign that at least there are a few who are paying attention.

  21. Terrence Says:

    It seems that two arguments are getting intertwined here, one is that the direction of superhero comics is self-destructive, and that sexism is inherent is major superhero comics. That last statement may seem too absolute, but that is how it feels. I’ll say this, I’m black, I love superheroes, and I love pictures of beautiful women. I’m proud of that and will tell anyone who asks me. I’m not concerned with whether or not Marvel or DC are new reader friendly, because right now I am enjoying the huge “epic” feeling going on in both universes. I also don’t see how large breasts are sexist in themselves, if I see a real, pretty woman with big breasts wearing a small outfit, is she some kind of Uncle Tom, or is she not counted as real? I think artists should be able to draw what they find attractive, within reason because like TV, you want your product to have pretty people. I just feel like for some reason that superhero comics have to adhere to a standard that is unrealistic and far different from every other form of entertainment.

  22. Johanna Says:

    Willow, it’s not about “you and people like you” — it’s that I don’t think most of today’s big-company superhero comics are worth ANYONE’s time or attention. You like ‘em, fine, “advocate” away. But I suspect they’ll break your heart before you’re able to achieve substantial change — that’s what’s happened to most people I’ve known over the past two decades who had dreams of making them different, whether based on gender, race, subject matter, quality, or any number of other factors. I *hope* this time, it’s different… but I *fear* it won’t be.

  23. Stephen Frug Says:

    Your comment about Heroes makes me curious… does anyone know anything about the gender ratio of, say, Heroes, Spiderman 3, or The Incredibles? It might help distinguish superheroes as a genre from superhero comics.

  24. Lyle Masaki Says:

    f HEROES has a strong female component to its audience, I’d attribute that more to soap opera-style plotline…

    See, I tend to see to view soap-opera style plotting as part of what makes Heroes so superhero-y.

  25. John Says:

    It works the same in television, film, music, radio, books, magazines . . . if the major entities don’t offer what you want, there are plenty alternatives that are happy to. Calling these alternatives a “ghetto” is ridiculous, it’s belittling.

  26. Martin Says:

    Thank you, Johanna, for taking the flack and trying to make a reasonable point amid a sea of unreasonable responses.

    I’ve crossed swords with Karen “I’m so scary-enlightened I don’t need to listen to anybody else” Healy, and Livia “Enough about my point, let’s talk about my point”, and their like before. They represent a wave of third-wave feminism which seems to enjoy fighting losing battles so they can champion their own victimization.

    As my wife likes to say, “Focusing on how victimized you are, keeps you a victim”.

    I’d like to point out to many of you young turks and turkettes who were pointed here from your faux-feminist inflated self-righteous slice of the web, that Johanna has walked the walk while you’ve been talking the talk. She’s not your straw man to beat up. You can forgive her if she’s tired.

    As recent as Willow, you’ve come here indignant and left indignant and learned nothing. That’s just the kind of closed mindedness that will win you nothing in this world. Let alone with the Big 2. Meanwhile you’ve shit on your sister in the interests of masturbating your own talking-point without appreciating she’s been there and done that.

    I’m a male feminist superhero comic lover. Why do I love superhero comics? B/c they have more women kicking ass per capita than any other entertainment industry. I’ve grown up with comic book females as my real and genuine heroes (except they’re being fictional… shut up). Is it perfect? Not always, maybe even rarely. But you completely bypass the good works and humble efforts of several individuals* so you can keep your frustrations around you like a security blanket. Congratulations, you’ve made yourself the victim you’ve been hoping you are.

    (*incuding Dan Didio. It’s easy to pick on Dan, he can be kind-of a douche, but have you missed his fighting for Manhunter despite it not making him money, or his avid support of BoP? How about making most of the changes fans have clamored for this past year, despite personally disagreeing with them? You’re just mad that he won’t give you a case for Stephanie, or everything you want).

    Comics aren’t perfect, there’s always going to be room for change/improvement. You can call and clamor for it, that’s your right. However–, well, people have said it better than I will be able to (especially Johanna, if you’ve been listening) as far as what is fair and reasonable to expect or how your time might be better spent.

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you get an inch, take it, don’t demand the whole mile at once (miles are made of inches). Vote with your wallet. Blah, blah, blah, idioms.

    Read this blog for what it’s intended and you just might find titles you like better.

    Again, thank you Johanna for bothering to make your original point that set this whole thing off, and I hope you get back to your regularly scheduled blogging ASAP.

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  28. universalperson Says:

    Martin: I’m not Karen Healy, but that comment offended on multiple levels.

  29. StevenRowe Says:

    I stopped reading Marvel superhero comics in 1974 – and DC’s superhero comics within the decade after that (reading LSH or JSA and a couple of others off and on since – right now reading Hero2). On the other hand, I buy lots of humor, western, horror, crime, folk tales, biographical and other comics. I buy more comics than most readers do.
    I’ve learned a couple things in the past 30 years . 1) most superhero fans get very angry and confused if you state you you like comics, but dont read superhero comics. 2) while the direct market might have saved comics (and they might have indeed) – it was turned into a one item town. there are a few exceptions – near colleges generally. 3) the stereotypes of comic book fans are truer than we like to think….

    Steven R (who used to write a lot more about comics, back when he was paid to do so – so I admire all of yall who write so well for free)

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