Why Aren’t There More Women in Comics?

DC recently rejiggered their entire line and people noticed that number of female creators involved dropped noticeably. This, as it should have, started a bigger conversation about the general lack of women working in the American comics industry (hereby defined as the mostly monthly releasing stuff). Which is where it got wonky.

I saw a few people get into it and one of the most popular things said was that if more women pitched there would be more women in comics. As if that was the answer. Since they aren’t it must mean they don’t want to be in comics.

This is when I started to smash my head into a wall in frustration. But I stopped that and decided to try explaining why that sentiment makes me want to force myself into unconsciousness, instead.

Let’s try the same sentiment with a different twist.

There aren’t more women in math because they don’t want to be in math.

Really? So it has nothing to do with the systematic indoctrination that math isn’t for women? It has nothing to do with steering women away from the field? Come the hell on!

The American Comics industry, going back to the root here, has spent how long doing comics that feature women in lesser roles, as helpless victims or as abuse recipients only? And even though that is changing now, it is still there and the current crop of people who are of an age to start working in comics were born back when it was still an even bigger problem than it is today.

Why would you think, given that, that women would want to pitch for comics? Yes, there are women in the industry. Yes there were in the 50s and 60s as well. I am not discarding them or marginalizing them. But percentage-wise? It’s sad. And it isn’t because “women don’t want to do comics” or even “women don’t want to do superhero comics.”

It’s because they’ve been chased off, told they shouldn’t want to do them and then often shown that what they would be working on is insulting to them. And yet people are confused.

Let’s be honest. The majority of American Comics (again mainstream stuff etc) is full of women being used and abused, discarded and ignored as actual characters. Imagine you love drawing comics. Now imagine you’re told to draw stuff that marginalizes and tosses under the bus the people in the stories that represent you. How long would you do it?

Suppose you owned a club. Now, every white male who wants in, you check their ID, and you let them in. Every woman who wants into your club you punch in the face and then check their ID and let them in. Once you learn that’s wrong and twisted you downgrade to slapping them, but only when no one is looking. Then you act shocked when women don’t line up to get into your club after a while. You decide, based on the fact that they aren’t in line that day, that women simply don’t want to enter your club, but assure everyone that if they did want to enter they’d be allowed, of course.

Yeah, a lot of this happens less now. How long after you stop even slapping people do you think it would be before women flocked to your club? More than a week? A year? A generation grown up without knowing people smacked or punched? Two? The industry is still paying off its debt from behavior past as well as behavior now.

No, we’ve lost an untold number of voices already. It’s too late. They love comics, many of them make comics, just not over here, or not often. They make webcomics (ever notice how many female webcomic creators there are? But women don’t want to make comics, right Bubba?) where they aren’t made to feel that the very stories they tell will be hateful to themselves.

Maybe we’ve only lost 5 voices. Maybe 500. Maybe 5,000. But comics, like most creative endeavors, lives and breathes on talent. If comics are bread then talent is the yeast. You can sell Spider-Man comics made with little or no talent. It’s flat, boring and tasteless but people who need Spider-Man will buy it. But with the right thing to make that story rise? You can really get somewhere.

And the industry has a history of actively trying to throw out half the population’s worth of potential. And then asking why they aren’t there, punching them in the face, and swearing they would be welcome, if they’d only show up.

Well done, guys.

51 Comments

  1. Maureen June 16, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Wow, great insight and perfect metaphor. This post applies to way more than comics too! Women in the military, women in business, female athletes…..I could go on and on. Thanks for saying and sharing your peace on this one, Adam. I dig it.

    And this is why I want you to be my life coach :)

    Peace and Love
    Maureen “Tired of Getting Punched in the Face” Dixon

  2. APK June 16, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    It certainly, and sadly, applies to all sorts of things. I wish it didn’t.

  3. Jessi June 16, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Even just as an audience member, I always feel on the outside with comics.

    I used to really feel like SciFi was like this, too. There weren’t many franchises with strong female characters, etc. But in recent years, I think that’s really started to turn around. Hopefully, comics can catch on and follow suit.

  4. APK June 16, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    They exist. They’re a minority but they exist. Find anything by Gail Simone, for example, if you want superheroes with strong female leads.

  5. TwoBusy June 16, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    You’re spot-on with the Gail Simone recommendation — a wonderful writer whose gift for dialogue and character is rarely matched in the mainstream, and who (as you noted) has done some really remarkable things in the past few years.

    This (and GS’ twitter stream this past week) got me thinking about Ann Nocenti, who was one of my favorite writers back in the day… a quick Google search turned up articles that said that after a nice stretch of strong, high-profile work “the calls just stopped coming.” Which is a terrible, terrible shame — and perhaps another indicator of what you’re talking about.

  6. Erik June 16, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    Dead on!

  7. Bill S. June 16, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    I don’t think that the generic homogeneity of mainstream comics really helps anything, either. Surely there are plenty of female (and, let’s be honest, male) creators who would love to work on something in a mainstream book that is less tied to spandex. But that’s a whole other topic…

  8. APK June 16, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    I dunno. There are lots of fans, male and female of batman, superman, etc. A LOT.

  9. Greenwick June 17, 2011 at 5:10 am #

    Wow, what a brilliant metaphor!

    I remember reading something from a woman who wanted to draw comics. She hoped one day to get in on one of the big companies (I forget whether it was DC or Marvel.) Friends and family all failed to understand why she didn’t want to illustrate children’s books instead; some failed to even recognize that didn’t want to illustrate children’s books. I didn’t realize before then that there were still so few women creators in the comic book industry.

    It was happy time when I thought women were helping to create things like Batman – or at least titles like Batwoman. Sad.

  10. rmd June 17, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    I am reminded of an essay about the anthology “Last Dangerous Visions”, describing the holes left by masterpieces nobody has ever read.

  11. Tiffany June 17, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    After reading theferret’s recent idiocy about women in comics and Uri Kurlianchik’s horrible rant, this is a refreshingly now awful take on women in comics.

    Thanks!

  12. Tiffany June 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    woops *not awful

  13. Kyle Marquis June 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    My hypothesis: There aren’t more women in (mainstream superhero) comics because DC and Marvel do not want them. They say they do, but my friend says he wants to stop smoking pot and watching Animaniacs reruns. No one believes him, and no one should believe the Big Two.

    Even the idea that it requires some special insight to “appeal to women” is an attitude that’s almost laughably antiquated. “What do these crazy dames want? It’s like you can’t make heads or tales of ‘em!” What is this, the seventies?

    Any guy who needs to be told “Stop drawing women in porn poses” is either living in a reality-bubble that makes cult members look well-adjusted, or–more likely–he already got the message loud and clear and he just doesn’t care.

  14. Sparticus June 17, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    THIS. Thank you!

    I am also glad that you made it a point to state that you were excluding indie/web comics and manga. Add those in and the industry’s actually pretty balanced. Or if it isn’t, it will be soon. XD

  15. Amber June 18, 2011 at 1:09 am #

    But what does it say about the women that they BELIEVE that bullshit?

    I’m not sure why people think the metaphor about a club works so well, since there’s a huge difference between a real slap (which can and will be slapped back) and a metaphorical one.

  16. APK June 18, 2011 at 1:12 am #

    IT says that if you repeat something to someone enough they will start to believe it. Are you REALLY going to try and blame the WOMEN for this? And dismiss the entire concept of verbal abuse?

    Wow.

    Walk away.

  17. Amber June 18, 2011 at 1:14 am #

    It’s a multi-way street. If you’re told you can’t do something, do you believe it? Why?

  18. APK June 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    At first, no. But if you’re told it by society, by friends, by family, from when you’re a KID? Yeah, you believe it.

  19. Amber June 18, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    If that was the case then we would have no women in comics at all. If that was the case than we wouldn’t even be discussing this issue. So no, there’s a huge difference between being told something and basing your life’s plans around it.

  20. APK June 18, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    Saying something doesn’t hold true for all people so we should blame the people it does hold true for? You are a piece of work.

  21. Amber June 18, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    We should blame everyone at fault. Compliance and enforcement are cut from the same cloth, though.

  22. APK June 18, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    No, somehow I am not going to agree to blame the victim here. But hey! Thanks for playing our home game!

  23. Amber June 18, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    To blame only the people who institute these discriminations is to ignore the compliance of everyone else that permits it to continue! It’s an issue for everyone, and has to be addressed on all fronts! Otherwise we’re screaming at walls.

  24. APK June 18, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    And again, see, I’m all for standing up and saying no more. You, however, have come at it from a place of blaming them for it. Instead of moving forward. Do you see the difference?

  25. Amber June 18, 2011 at 10:32 pm #

    No, because in a society like this, anyone who is complacient is to blame. Anyone who lets someone else dictate their life, who abandons their own voice, is just letting tyranny win. That means that anybody who does nothing is part of that tyranny. Anything else is a gross oversimplification of everything involved.

  26. APK June 18, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    No it isn’t an oversimplification. In fact if anything is, it would be what you just said.

    One last time and then I’m done running in circles around the same point with you – There is a huge gulf between taking a stand and working to stop the sort of abuse and behavior that and deciding the blame the abused for being abused. Saying anyone who was, as far back as childhood, told what to do and how to think, is to blame for their learned behavior – instead of trying to fix it and to stop it from happening again IS NOT HELPFUL. IT IS DESTRUCTIVE.

    If you can not grasp this then you can not and I feel sorry for you, but also wary of you, because any “help” you offer people likely starts with you detailed how they’re wrong and blaming them in the first place. That’s isn’t help. It really and truly is not. However, nothing I can say or do will make you see that, I understand that, and we’ve now been going around this a few times. So, chances are, I won’t bother with another reply to you. It starts to become a waste of both of our time.

    To sum up – your plan hinges on blaming the victim and then calling that help. This is not smart. I hope some day you realize that. Either way may your life bring you everything you need from it and may your days be filled with free pancakes.

  27. Amber June 18, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Except that you’re talking to someone who WAS told that from childhood. Everyone has been. Yet we don’t all uniformally sit back and let people dictate our lives. As I said, if we did, we wouldn’t have discussions like this. There wouldn’t be any resistance to this sort of thinking. I assume that you’re American as you’re speaking of the American comics industry, so as another American, you and I grew up having those same cultural influences as these people who give in to that pressure. Why are we able to stand up for our beliefs while they fold? I’m honestly not sure, but I do believe that this cannot and should not be entirely blamed on the people in power, but also the people who enforce that power. And they enforce it by doing nothing, by blindly accepting what they’re told. In doing so, they only further the oppressive system that traps them.

    Obviously I’m not saying to only blame them. I hope it just goes understood as a far-too-obvious-to-need-to-be-spoken statement that the majority of blame goes on the people who institute these things to begin with. But ALL aspects need to be considered, and when you get down to it, it’s a cycle involving far more than just them.

  28. APK June 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

    People react to things differently. Blaming them for not reacting like you have gets us where? WHERE?

    “I can do this puzzle fast. You can’t. WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?”

    Do you see the problem there? You’re blaming people for not reacting the way you do. For deciding that therefore since you did, everyone is capable of it, or can do it and so they should’ve and their not doing is somehow offensive to you because well YOU DID so why can’t they?

    Do you see that? What you think you’re advocating as help is actually part of the problem.

    And I know I said I wasn’t going to reply again, but I see exactly where the breakdown in communication is so I want to try to address that directly.

  29. Amber June 18, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    Do YOU not see a difference between a puzzle and something as important as your own voice? And no, this isn’t about just me. If it was just me, I WOULD be screaming at a wall. But the very fact that this blog exists shows that it isn’t just me. Everyone in the WORLD has grown up with this to some extent, and yet it seems that people are content to just let others sit back and let life trample them.

  30. APK June 18, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    The puzzle… I… wow. Ok. If you didn’t get that little example I really can’t help you. I’m really done this time. There is zero point in trying to talk reality and sense to you.

  31. Amber June 18, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

    I get that it was a metaphor, if that’s what you’re after. About how just because I can do something I shouldn’t expect it from everyone else. But I addressed that in the whole “I know that I’m not the only one” part.

    Fine, I guess, if people want to let life pass them by because they don’t want to think for themselves.

  32. Alexa June 19, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    Amber, you’re being deliberately obtuse.

    And sometimes it’s not about “believing it” as “not wanting to put up with their shit and do something else”. This is a major part of why indie comics and webcomics have a huge percentage of female creators.

    Also, it’s not always just “oh, I guess these companies don’t want me” or “I guess I don’re really want to do comics.” Sometimes it’s that women creators are actually sexually harassed and assaulted by male editors and other men in the field. Colleen Doran was groped by Julius Schwartz, for god’s sake. Valerie D’Orazio was harassed while working at DC and they tried to bribe her not to ever mention it ever again. Taki Soma was groped by someone from the CBLDF– which is supposed to be an advocacy group for the rights of creators. Hell, Marvel is known for taking groups of creators out to strip clubs at cons. Can you really blame most women for just not wanting to even bother? When they can seek out other, much more fulfilling, and possibly more lucrative, creative outlets where they just don’t have to deal with this shit?

  33. Greenwick June 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

    Wow. I never thought I’d read a post like this. o_o How did you reach your conclusions, may I ask? I often run into people who have all sorts of ‘interesting’ conclusions about women and minorities in various situations, and it is often mind numbing to try and counter them.

  34. NefariousDrO June 19, 2011 at 10:52 pm #

    Frankly, this debate seems to be heading towards irrelevance, given what kind of readership both Marvel and DC (as well as most of the other “standard” comic-labels) pull in. It’s an aging audience, the kids aren’t interested in what is being done, and have moved on to other things. When my generation finally dies out what’s left of the old-guard comic book makers will die as well. And yes, everything you’re saying is true, by the way.

  35. APK June 19, 2011 at 10:56 pm #

    I don’t think it is heading toward irrelevance, regardless of if the genre dies (and I don’t think it will). It’s applicable to more than just comics.

  36. Kyle Marquis June 20, 2011 at 8:57 am #

    While I don’t think discussions about institutional sexism are heading toward irrelevance, I agree with NefariousDrO that superhero comics (specifically the comics, not the characters they created in the 40s, 50s, and 60s) have been irrelevant for a long time. Super comics today are neither creative innovators nor effective vectors for bringing new ideas to the mainstream.

    Super comic publishers aren’t sexist in a vacuum; they’re sexist because they’re staffed by men who are obsessed with trying to recreate–over and over again–experiences from their youth, and those experiences didn’t really feature women, people of color, queer gender identities, or anything else “controversial.” At this point, “DC is sexist” and “DC is irrelevant” are practically two ways of saying the same thing.

  37. APK June 20, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Wow. Why don’t you try it again without personally attacking a large group of people, a bunch of which I know and who, really, are not who you claim they are. Actually the whole comment feels like it was written by someone who doesn’t partake of the industry. So, as far as your anaylsis of it, I’ll just skip right over that. But really, yes there is sexism, I am not discounting that since that was my whole point. But also be aware of the difference of “everyone who staffs it is a sad sack loser” and “there are issues and we need to address them”.

    One is true. One is just a baseless attack.

  38. Kyle Marquis June 20, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    Nope. A quick flip through the Big Two press releases and interviews indicates that they’re “filling in the gaps in” so-and-so’s history and “going back to the core of” another character, and of course, “We’re starting with a tremendous history in place already.”

    (I can reference those quotes, if you’d like. All I did was search CBR for Big Two stuff then control+F for the words “back” and “history.”)

    Going back. Getting back to. To the basics. To the history. The origin. Classic. Original. These are the seed-terms from which you can construct a random “interview with a superhero comics writer” generator.

    “Well, Artie, I really wanted to get back to the origins of the Green Arrow, to see how the character has changed through history, and to reveal something new about the Green Arrow’s origin.”

    (Maybe throw in something about “shaking up the status quo,” that usually ends up meaning they whack some fourth-tier nobody like Roddenberry whacked reshirts, to make it “for real this time.”)

    These interviews and excerpts are the words of people who want to go back to “the way it was”; that’s the constant drum-beat. So I’ll reiterate what I said: the writers aren’t sexist because they’re sexist in a vacuum; the Big Two *as institutions* are sexist because they’re staffed with people who are obsessed with regression, with getting back to “origins” and “sources” and “history,” and those histories date to times when women and other minorities barely had a voice.

  39. Kyle Marquis June 20, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    And it’s true, I barely “partake of the industry,” because I find most of the output stupid. This year my Big Two consumption consisted of Morrison’s Batman-through-history thing, JMS’ latest work on Thor, and one or two other books. Oh, and the last bit of Runaways, which I kind of stopped reading after Whedon, since I was expected to care about Skrulls and by God, no man should be forced to care about Skrulls.

    But please, feel free to dismiss my opinions because I don’t march down to Newbury Comics every Wednesday and drop a hundred dollars on floppies so The Flash can leak into my favorite stories. That attitude can only help the comic industry.

  40. APK June 20, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    I’m not dismissing you because you don’t drop X amount on books a week, Christ. You know what, nevermind. I honestly don’t have the time to write a decent response right now. When I do, I will.

  41. Maura McHugh June 20, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    Adam, thanks so much for your post. Too often the first response of people is to turn around and say that women don’t work hard enough, or their work is not good enough, or they’re just not around in enough numbers. Nothing about how the system subtly discourages contribution from women while on the surface paying lip service to the notion of equality.

    I’ve also had conversations with women who espouse these notions as well. They tell me that they made it, they stood up for themselves and then dismiss the idea that women need any extra encouragement, etc.

    Interestingly, my experience is that these women are more often than not white, educated and are blessed with an inner self-confidence. They neither acknowledge that their experience is not the experience of other women, nor do their appreciate they have advantages that others do not.

    I’m not going to fall into the trap of putting this all on women either. :) All people judge the world based on their personal experiences of it. Thus a lot of men who find it hard to break into an industry react to this kind of conversation with a furious self-righteousness: ‘hey, I can’t break in but you want to make it easier for women!’

    No one ever espouses giving jobs to women who don’t have the talent/ability, however the playing field is not level. Not even close to it.

    There are women in the comic books industry, but their numbers are not being reflected fairly in the two big studios – Marvel & DC. That’s clearly a deficiency on a policy level with the companies, and one they need to address – *if* they actually want to change.

  42. Trina Robbins June 27, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    You write “one of the most popular things said was that if more women pitched there would be more women in comics.” Indeed. I pitched comics ideas to Marvel and DC thoughout the 80s and 90s, and was always rejected, sometimes in a not-so-nice way. The usual reason for rejection was “This is a nice idea but it’s aimed at girls (or women) and girls (or women) don’t read comics.” Once I was told that if I gave my female hero a guy to work side-by-side with her, I might have a chance of selling the concept.Another editor, for a different comic publisher rejected my pitch, saying that she (yes, a woman!)hoped that stories like mine, starring a woman hero, would be published in her lifetime! I finally gave up and today I write graphic novels for real book publishers, and get to tell stories I really enjoy writing and that I really want to tell. Thank goddess for graphic novels!

  43. APK June 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    And you write them WONDERFULLY, may I add. Thanks for weighing in on this.

  44. Trina Robbins June 27, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    Thank you, Adam.

  45. Ellemar August 2, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    Thanks for writing this. I’m a young woman that’s just starting to make my way into making comics and graphic novels, and I’ve been wondering what it’s going to be like to be a woman in a largely male-dominated industry. I’m not too worried that it’s going to cause any issues for me, but it does make me sad that maybe some girls out there are feeling like they wouldn’t be able to hack it against the guys. This was a great read :)

  46. APK August 2, 2011 at 10:24 pm #

    Well mainly, as I mentioned, the issue is with superhero comics. Which doesn’t mean you can’t get there. Just means it is, sadly, more sucky at the big two.

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