Focusing on the Positive: How Do We Make Superhero Books for Women?

Ryan at Filmfodder takes off from recent discussions to ask a good question:

WHAT DO WOMEN WANT IN SUPERHERO COMICS? What would draw you in? … What sort of stories would interest you? How could the characters be handled in a manner which doesn’t make you simply roll your eyes? What’s working for you now? What can you cite as an example? What can the publishers do more of?

In other words, criticism is easy; positive suggestions are harder. I’ll be back later with my own comments, once I’ve had more time to ponder. I welcome your thoughts as well.

24 Responses to “Focusing on the Positive: How Do We Make Superhero Books for Women?”

  1. Buzz Says:

    I would think the easiest way to make superheroes appealing to contemporary female readers would be to shift the emphasis away from combat and more towards the protecting, sharing, and discovery of secrets. This doesn’t preclude action but it gives them something to do other than fly around and beat the bejeebers outta one another. SAILOR MOON is perhaps the best template for the type of story I’m thinking of. Many of the episodes dealt primarily with the Sailor Scouts uncovering some secret held by a supporting character and how it impinged on the villains’ plans; relatively little of the story was devoted to pure action conflict (possibly an example of low budgets forcing a more creative approach to storytelling).

    Someone is sure to complain this stereotypes female readers, so let me say while the above suggestion wouldn’t appeal universally to each and every female reader, it would sure appeal to a lot more of ‘em than are reading superhero comics now.

  2. Lyle Masaki Says:

    I think the simplest solution is to keep an eye out for the books that is getting embraced by female fans and to put them in a “protected” category where the long-term investment in building goodwill is prioritized over short term profits. A part of the problem is that a lot of comics where female characters are written well aren’t continuity porn and, therefore, become those titles where the fanbase spends all their time begging others to buy their favorite book. If you’re trying to make inroads on an audience, you can’t expect the Manhunters and She-Hulks to be instant hits or for WOM to turn sales around in a six-month window (WOM usually works much more slowly, especially in the Direct Market).

    So, if you could find these titles, give them time for their audience to build and keep them around long enough to win over jaded readers who’ve given up on quality titles that look like cancellation bait (and also long enough for a small group of titles to develop so that there’s a good mass of titles to feed an addiction) you could build an audience.

    Also (since it’s apparently not obvious to DC and Marvel) don’t go switching the teams on those titles so that it goes from praise-worthy to cringe-inducing.

    The problem is that building an audience takes time and patience… which also means money.

  3. Thomas Gerhardt Says:

    Without trying to pidgeon-hole a potential female readership (I am a man, after all), the most professional way to look at it would be to research what is selling well in the YA market and is targeted to girls. Despite my own issues with things like “Gossip Girls”, they do sell like hotcakes, just as well as Vampire Love stories (guh) and various other proto-Sex-in-the-City type of books. Most of those are bought almost exclusively by girls.

    Then one has to analyse what makes them work, why they are so attractive to teenage girls… and then see if there are elements that can be used in a superhero book designed to target girls.

    Rivkah, intentionally or not, was in my opinion very, very close with her Batgirl idea and its limited execution through the few sketches

    Tintin Pantoja (I probably misspelled her last name, my apologies) was almost there with her Wonder Woman pitch.

    The way I would do it is actually quite simple: I’d lock young female creators like Rivkah and Tintin in a room with my marketing people (not, I am sorry, not the old editorial guard) and don’t let them out… for a weekend of so.

    Before somebody cries “WTF? Marketing people?”… they are absolutely necessary to provide a point-counter-point atmosphere in such a setting, they are also much needed to be in there on the ground floor in order to have them do their best job later.

  4. Tommy Says:

    I will preface this by saying 90% of what I read are superhero books so my POV is skewed in that direction.

    I think you guys (and most of the internet) are overthinking this. It’s not about specifics, it’s about how realistic the person is. Spider-Man isn’t my favorite hero because he catches theives just like flies, it’s because he has doubts and fears and loves and problems. I can understand his joy and his anger and his relationships and his hope. Most characters have the strengths and weaknesses we see in ourselves or society around us. When Stan Lee created all those characters in the 60’s some of them were people he knew, some of them were molded out of fear of social ills and some were just fun romps in make believe land. The people who are trying to write books “for women” are doing a bad job because as far as I can tell “women” want the same things I look for in a hero, relateability. I want the lady leads in my comics to be like my wife and mother and grandmother. A flawed human being with all the ugly strengths and beautiful flaws being only a part of what they are. Sometimes women are strong, sometimes they are weak, sometimes they are angry and sometimes they are sad. There is no magic girl formula, there is only strong realistic portrayals of PEOPLE. These characters are already out there if you know where to look.

  5. ryan_cf Says:

    I’m not sure anyone is over thinking anything. In fact, if DC and Marvel are seeing a 10% female fanbase, I’d say that too little thinking (or misguided thinking: see Supergirl) has occurred.

    But you do have a point in that very few of the female superheroes the sort of middle-class, average Jane background that may be needed to access the characters. It worked for Buffy, to some extent for Alias, and seems to be working for NBC’s Heroes.

    Reflect that against Princess of the Amazons and the female demigods of the DCU who seemingly don’t have a life outside of their super identities. And with the exception of Jessica from Bendis’ Alias and The Pulse, I’m sort of hard pressed to think of a female superheroine at Marvel who isn’t a secret agent, ninja, etc…

    And, I mean, really… Sue Storm in her ivory tower may not be the ideal counterpoint to the argument.

    Point that against DC’s decision to NOT give Supergirl’s latest incarnation a secret identity of any sort, and it’s an interesting question. Does the world need Linda Lee?

    All that said… I’m not seeing a lot of women responding either here or at

  6. Lisa Lopacinski Says:

    I agree with Tommy – part of what makes people like a story is the little bit of it that they can relate to. I also think that women are less tolerant of bad writing than men are. Many men are collectors, some buy comics with little or no intention of even reading them. Where women seem to buy the books to read and enjoy. I know women who’ve read a comic for years, every issue, until she didn’t like a writer and dropped it completely until someone new got on it. It didn’t matter that she had every single issue before that – she wasn’t going to buy a story she didn’t like to read.

  7. Thomas Gerhardt Says:

    @ Ryan: I must disagree a bit with you on NBC’s Heroes. We have the Cheerleader (who is pretty much whining and useless all the time), we have Jessica/Nikki (if there’s ever been a poorly executed female stereotype, it is that character: she is the saintly mom AND the whore, all in ONE! Hooray! Whoop-de-doodle-doo! Even the line utter by hubby DL when she switches back to Nikki “Ack! You were always the strong one! Ack!” is pure bad comic book writing), we have manipulative Ivy League Mom and… and the one-dimensional shapeshifter, who is even more one-dimensional than Mystique, though she tries her best with the evil sexy poses and …wow, that was it.

    Compare that to TV shows with a predominantly female audience: Gilmore Girls, Grey’s Anatomy… all of them are dialogue and character-based, with the conflict arising from the characters… which is incidentally exactly the same basic structure that is shown in most girls-oriented Manga (was that Shojo? Sorry, it is late over here and my brain is somewhat frazzled): Outsider comes into a new environment and has to overcome obstacles to a) be accepted b) find a boyfriend and c) learn how to become a responsible goddess/pupil/witch whatever.

    Compare that to the typical super-hero writing. I have been given powers, my parents were killed, the Earth/USA/New York is in terrible danger, so I best take out my costume and fight the villain… and the next… and the next.

    Super-Hero stories at the moment are primarily POWER-based, with the character elements thrown in primarily to get us from one fight to the next, where something SO DREADFUL WILL HAPPEN that nothing WILL EVER BE THE SAME!

    Adolescent boy power fantasies. And there is inherently nothing wrong with that. But then one shouldn’t be surprised when girls tune out and go someplace else, and no amount of begging to “try out Supergirl, you know, she is really like you, except for the impossibly long legs, the anorexic body and the fake tits”

    Or the arrogance of “well, girls are reading Manga and YA novels, but sooner or later they will come around and read us, because we are so much cooler”

    (Sorry, Mr. Berganza and Mr. Breevort, it does not work like that in the real world, and you can pray for that to happen every day… it won’t)

    @ Tommy: I can relate to your argument there, but it has an inherent flaw. From your name I assume you are — like me — a man. What YOU or I want or can relate to or project is ultimately irrelevant. Me, I’d like more Ellen Ripleys and less Paris Hiltons… but projection of what we as men — as diverse a group as I hope we are — cannot necessarily be transported 1:1 to what a potential girl audience wants.

    That’s why I would opt for research, strong female creators with their own heads, a functioning marketing department and take it from there… and let’s see where it would lead. Magic bullet I got none to offer (well, I do, but that one is for emergencies only… for I had to sell my soul to get one)

  8. Vince Says:

    I think what Marvel and DC should do is create new sublines aimed at female readers. Hire female editors and writers, go after those voices online who feel they could do better, and let them tell the kinds of stories they would like to read in superhero comics. And then let the marketplace decide on what works or doesn’t. Anything that works gets integrated into the mainline books.

  9. ryan_cf Says:

    You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve only seen one episode of Heroes a while back, had no idea what was going on and, sadly, have little recollection of what I saw. But I don’t think you can deny that the world of Heroes is ground a bit more in a “realistic” world than one in which one can expect Atlanteans to invade NYC every three years or New Gods to occasionally show up and terrorize the populace.

  10. Charles RB Says:

    “Compare that to the typical super-hero writing. I have been given powers, my parents were killed, the Earth/USA/New York is in terrible danger, so I best take out my costume and fight the villain…”

    Using powers/abilities to go out and stop danger by hitting things is pretty much the basis of the genre though. If THAT is what’s putting girls off, then I don’t see any way of getting them to read superhero comics ever. That can’t be right, surely?

  11. Johanna Says:

    Well, that’s the big question, Charles. A whole bunch of interesting ideas, here.

  12. Lea Says:

    Make them like The Incredibles or Sky High or the first and second Spiderman movies! Well-rounded characters, great imagery, peril (by which I mean something is really at stake, not just a non-threat like the Purple Pieman), funny, good story, clever use of the powers, and people you can root for.

    You know, mostly what makes any story good.

    I used to think I didn’t like superheroes. Then I saw The Incredibles and Spiderman, and realized I didn’t hate superheroes, I hated lousy superhero comics.

    When comics companies stop making lousy superhero comics (and lousy includes porny imagery inside and on the covers), and they’ll get more female readers, and they’ll get sales in stores habituated by people with higher standards than floppy spank fodder.

  13. James Schee Says:

    I don’t think there is an easy answer other than make quality work. Women don’t all share the same tastes after all, so while what may work for one woman may not for another.

    I mean look at the women readers we do have now for evidence of the diversity. There were female readers of Lady Death and Danger Girls after all, and they may not overlap with those who read manga, or those who read stuff like Spidey Loves Mary Jane.

    So the thing to do is just do quality work, that doesn’t insult the intelligence of your audience. Whomever they may be.

  14. Kitty Says:

    Seconding James’ comments – I would read a lot more superhero comics if I felt respected as a reader. Instead I get floppies with just a few pages of story and ads every other page (this format drove me away from reading Daredevil monthly), overblown mega-events one after another instead of a focus on solid storytelling, and convoluted universes that require me to read books I don’t like to understand stories in the ones I do.

    And as a woman reader, I’m particularly driven away by “male gaze” artwork. One change I would love is to get rid of panels where women’s body parts are used as framing devices. It’s dialogue … and foreground ass!

  15. Patrick Brown Says:

    A lot of the things in superhero comics that are identified as offputting to women – the decades of continuity, the action over characterisation and so on – also put me off as a man. Most of the comics I read are in different genres. However, the superhero comic as it currently exists is a refuge for a certain type of male mind that likes to gather and organise information. Should we deprive these guys of their pleasure in order to appeal more to another group of people who aren’t particularly keen and already have plenty of stuff in various media aimed at them? If girls are reading manga, why do they need to read superhero comics, and why do superhero comics need girls reading them?

    The fact that a given genre appeals more to one sex than the other is not necessarily a problem, and is not necessarily sexist. There’s room for all sorts. Besides, women as a group don’t have any better taste than men as a group – there’s a lot of trash aimed at women – so appealing to women is not necessarily any indication of quality.

    This debate reminds me of the attempts in the 80s to make comics more literary and respectable. It’s all about the geek inferiority complex – if we could get cooler people reading them we wouldn’t feel so geeky.

  16. Patrick Brown Says:

    On the other hand, you do get things like Frank Miller’s cover to the new All-Star Batman and Robin, which is just a shot of Wonder Woman’s arse, so I wouldn’t deny there’s sexism in superhero comics.

    Although I suspect if men were to look at the kind of stuff women like to read, we might find things to object to in some of their portrayals of men…

  17. Charles RB Says:

    If the way to do it is just good writing and art, the whole problem suddenly seems a lot less problematic – it’s all a matter of employing creators who don’t suck. Shouldn’t be too hard to manage, right?

    Heavy continuity, I’m not sure about. I’ve seen women in other fandoms getting heavily into the continuity of it (Harry Potter and Transformers are biggies with heavy continuity). Too convoluted a continuity will put the majority of potential readers off, but I’m not sure it’s a gender thing.

    “why do superhero comics need girls reading them?”

    Coz girls have money.

  18. Johanna Says:

    I think “make good comics” is only the start. I think women tend to be more attracted to superhero stories that focus on character interaction, usually those with large teams, which allows for a variety of personalities and a subsequent increase in potential combinations. I think women are likely to be more interested in “what can be done with these abilities” and “how do they affect my life” and less in fights and battles. That’s only a start.

  19. Dawn Says:

    This is such an interesting topic because I’ve usually heard people say that girls will read boy-literature but that boys will never read read girl-literature.

    I think that team building and interaction are probably interesting to girls.

    In our late teens, my sister and I used to collect the reprints of the Dark Phoenix era X-men. I liked the early Excalibur too.

    This might seem silly but “magical girl” anime shows like Sailor Moon or Tokyo Mew Mew are essentially superheros in pink ribbons.

    My teenage sister loves FullMetal Alchemist and that seems close to a superhero series.

    Personally, it seems that superhero comics have really bad press. I keep hearing news and seeing images from the industry publishers and creators that seem negative toward women.

    I don’t have strong feelings either way about the Mary-Jane-does-laundry thing. But it is a bit like a another “boys only” sign on the clubhouse to me.

    I went on too long but it’s a very interesting topic.

  20. Kaylan Says:

    “I think women are likely to be more interested in “what can be done with these abilities” and “how do they affect my life” and less in fights and battles. That’s only a start.”

    I do agree to an extent – personally, I like seeing how powers affect a person’s ‘normal’ life. But I do like the fight scenes/battles, the heroes saving the day, as well.

    I don’t think that a complete overhaul of the genre is needed to make superhero comics girl friendly. Quite frankly, all I think superhero comics need to be girl friendly – everyone friendly – is good stories, good art, well rounded and varied characters (in looks, personalities and powers/abilities), and storylines that are respectful to their characters (male, remale, and genderbending/genderless/alien/robot/etc alike).

    And we all know that I’d like to see inclusivity and acceptance from the comic book companies/stores/fans, but girls who like superhero comics might need more of a presence (which would certainly be helped along if there were some small changes made to get them reading in larger numbers) before that can happen.

  21. Lea Says:

    “Women” in general will not read any one particular thing, although I suspect you know that.

    I read the following superhero books: New Avengers (ambivalent), Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man (like), Astonishing X-Men (like a lot), X-Factor (adore madly) and Runaways (barely counts, but also adore madly). I also read two TPBs of District X, which I loved, and a TPB of NYX, which I was deeply ambivalent about.

    Often enough, my favorite characters are male. However, in ensemble books (by far my favorite kind) I will always be looking for the female characters, trying to find what to like and sympathize with in them.

    I’m mindful of Bechdel’s Law: are there more than two female characters? Do they interact? Do they speak? About things other than men? Do they have relationships with other female characters? Mothers, sisters, best friends, co-workers, class-mates? Are they more than love interests, and more than token girls? Are they markedly and deeply different from each other?

    That’s what will impress me in a book. Assuming, of course, that it’s well-written, emotionally plausible, has good characterization etc.

  22. day Says:

    I think women less like the random punching of a superhero comic, so the superhero will need to be a smart superhero.

    For example:
    Monk (TV Show) and his “superpower” of OCD, constantly saves the day.

    Doctor Who (TV Show, Comic – Ongoing, Comic – Upcoming Mini) Though he has the “superpower” of being an alien (and a few gadgets, notably the sonic screwdriver), they generally don’t play a part in saving the day. It’s the intelligence and wit that wins out.

    House and Psych. Two tv shows where the hero knowledge wins out.

    The television peeps are obviously a bit better at this that comics are.

    To keep men interested, I think television makes a wise choice in keeping the male as the lead. The geeky audience (male and female) could see themselves having the wit to overcome the enemy (as opposed to having the… optic blasts needed to overcome the enemy). Having the lack of “guns blazing” and lack of penises might alienate men too much, and as much as we want to invite a larger female audience, it’s important not to lose the base that we have.


    Another tactic is adding more characterization to the superhero comics. This is well displayed in Runaways, where they still defeat the enemy using powers, but there’s a low of downtime from the fighting where you learn about the connections between the characters, important to women. Another example would be Exiles, especially when the team is still controlled by an unknown Timebroker, which makes an effort to include moments for the characters to ponder their destiny.

  23. Lyle Says:


    That reminds me what I’ve said before about the dynamics found in the Legion. Traditionally, the Legion is full of characters who don’t have action-oriented powers, the team has to be creative in how they use their powers and combine them with their teammates. I think that’s something missing from superhero comics nowadays, “guns blazing” powers seem to be more common, writers seem to have a harder time with more intangible powers.

  24. irgendeine Userin Says:

    That’s how it is, mostly boys write about what women like to read in a comic-book. ;-)

    Well, I don’t think there is such thing like “every woman likes to read this or that.”

    I agree with Lyle Masaki:

    I think the simplest solution is to keep an eye out for the books that is getting embraced by female fans and to put them in a “protected” category where the long-term investment in building goodwill is prioritized over short term profits.

    That would be fine. :-)
    So we won’t have to grieve for Manhunter, Nightwing etc.




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