Monday, October 3, 2011

DC Comics: Too dumb to live?

Pardon me, folks, I feel a rant coming on. This one is a grown-up-ish rant, so readers under 13, you might want to go find a happier blog to read today. Readers under 18, feel free to stay, but I don’t want to hear about it from your parents later.

Just us grown-up impersonators now? Good.

Lately there’s been yet another foofaw in the comic-book world about DC Comics’ treatment of female creators and characters. Things sort of exploded back in July, when a female fan in a Batgirl costume stood up at Comic-Con San Diego and asked a DC editor why, in the course of rebooting the company’s whole comic-book universe and launching 52 new #1 issues in September, the company’s creative staffed dropped from 12% female to 2% female. There was a lot of hemming and hawing, and the best explanation offered—that there simply weren’t enough female creators willing and able to work on DC’s relaunch—smelled a bit fishy.

Now the new comics are hitting the stands, and the fish-stink borders on hallucinogenic.

In the first issue of a comic-book series called Red Hood and the Outlaws, a superheroine named Starfire (you might remember her as the bubbly, naïve alien girl in the Teen Titans cartoons) had this conversation:

And the entire internet exploded.

A lot of female fans have complained about the way the reboot has treated female characters, pointing to Starfire as the tip of the iceberg. There’s the first issue of Catwoman, too, which ends with Catwoman having sex with Batman on a rooftop and seems to be pretty much all about shots of the main character in red lingerie, with her face conveniently cropped out:

Then there’s Voodoo, the first monthly DC title to have a black female as its lead character. Naturally, she’s a stripper, and this is the panel they chose to release as a sneak peek:


And I’m done posting panels for now, because this is beyond absurd and all the way out to disgusting.

I could talk about how these portrayals are demeaning to women, especially female fans, and how DC is sending wrong messages to impressionable teenage readers by telling the boys that this is how girls act and telling the girls that this is how heroes act. I could talk about the long, rich history of sexism and misogyny in mainstream comics, but honestly, I don’t think anybody who’s been reading comics for any length of time doubts that this stuff goes on, or that it goes mostly unchallenged. (If you'd like a cogent, well-written summary of the female fan response, however, the best one I've read is here.)

No, what I want to talk about is how incredibly stupid this kind of stuff is. Not because it’s unethical, or because it’s bad art. Let’s cut right to the bottom line here—by making this crap their primary product, DC Comics is leaving piles of money on the table.

DC Comics (and its parent corporation, Warner Bros.) is literally too stupid to take the money and run, too dumb to make hay while the sun shines, too brain-damaged to open its mouth when it’s raining soup. Marvel Comics does this, too, but DC’s the big offender at the moment. Both companies have an opportunity to double their customer base—at a minimum—and they’re chucking it for some soft-core porn.

Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.

First, a few basic facts. Females make up approximately half of all human beings on planet Earth. Women buy and read many more books and magazines than men do, and are more likely to spend their leisure time reading, including (if not especially) in English-speaking countries. This is particularly true of fictionwomen make up 80% of the market there. So of the people out there looking for an entertaining story, presented in the form of ink stains on paper, four-fifths are women and girls. Wouldn’t it be nice if they read comic books?

But wait, I hear you saying. Women and girls don’t read comic books. Comic books are for boys—always have been, always will be. Traditional superhero comics, in particular, don’t appeal to girls for some reason; girls who do read comics prefer manga, or cartoon-based comics, or edgy, independent, Vertigo-type stuff.  Why should we make superhero stories for people who don’t like stories about superheroes?

Well, the problem with that argument is that girls do like stories about superheroes. It’s just that most of them aren’t willing to wade through the cesspool to find the good ones. I know, and not just because I'm a female comic fan. I know because I created a female superhero with a life of her own—and both girls and boys read those stories like crazy.

I created Rae Masterson in 1998 after I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that said the comic-book industry was in freefall, and perhaps the best hope of saving it was to draw in female readers. I created a scrappy girl superhero mostly to see if I could, reasoning that if my middle-school classmates could afford to see Titanic four times every weekend, then surely a few of those dollars could easily be diverted to comics, as long as the comics were better than seeing Titanic again.

Inside of a few years, I had a small cult going around the stories, based entirely on word of mouth, and I was getting letters and emails from readers—both male and female—who were just as enthusiastic about Rae and Trevor as I was about Daredevil’s adventures. In high school, when I knew most of my readers at least by first name, I could say with confidence that my readership was solidly 50-50, an even split between male and female readers. Now that the much-improved stories are being serialized on Pocket Coyote, the reader base is closer to 60 to 65% female, according to Facebook stats and blog traffic. I still have all the elements of a good mainstream superhero story—lots of action and twisty plots and stuff blowing up, plus several metric tons of sarcasm—but I’ve also got relationship drama, and I go out of my way to make sure that my male and female characters are all fully developed and have their own unique character arcs. Everybody changes, everybody lives. (And everybody keeps their clothes on, though that wasn’t really a goal—it just sort of happened.)


Think about what those numbers could mean to DC Comics. If they stopped actively discouraging women from reading their books—stopped telling them over and over again that the only way to be accepted in this exciting fictional world was to fly around in lingerie and have sex on rooftops—they could more than double their fanbase. A particularly popular monthly comic book may sell 100,000 copies per issue; a writer who consistently wrote nuanced female characters with their clothes on could, with some intelligence and support from marketing, raise those numbers to something in the neighborhood of 200,000 to 250,000. That’s what it would look like if a mainstream comic could suddenly sprout Masks audience demographics. That’s 150,000 new fans—people who otherwise wouldn’t be reading your comics. New customers. That’s what DC Comics, and to a lesser extent Marvel, is leaving on the table.

Now, I hear you saying that Masks has a paltry circulation compared with, say, anything with Batman on the cover. My sample size is small enough that it might not scale up to something the size of the X-Men empire. My argument might be more valid if only there were an example of a mainstream comic-book property with fully developed (and fully clothed) female characters that made its producers a lot of money!

Oh, wait. There is.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of comic-book writers I know who go out of their way to write female characters with personalities and character arcs—but they’re all bestsellers, and most are winners of one or more Eisner awards (comicdom’s equivalent of the Oscar), usually for the work featuring those characters. Two of them saw their work represented in big-budget superhero movies this summer, and both of those movies blew out the doors of multiplexes worldwide. Thor drew heavily from J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the comic, which was notable in part for the complexity it brought to female characters like Jane Foster, Sif, and Loki (who was running around as a female for a while—long story). The movie, which prominently features Jane and gives Sif a chance to shine too, is closing in on $450 million in gross receipts worldwide, $181 million of that made in the United States.

Then there’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which is indebted to Ed Brubaker’s multi-Eisner-winning run on the character (in fact, Brubaker is credited in the film’s acknowledgments, along with creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby). The movie features Hayley Atwell as kickass British secret agent Peggy Carter, who combines elements of several female characters from Brubaker’s run and who holds her own quite effectively with the movie’s male leads. That flick is still in theaters, but it’s made around $175 million domestically as of this writing, and $360 million globally.

I saw both movies in theaters—Thor once and Captain America three times (long story). I saw Thor in a suburban multiplex, with an audience that was maybe 40% female. Captain America demographics varied a bit according to the time of day, but at least one showing was half-and-half. And while some of those girls and women were obviously there with the boys—accompanying their husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers—quite a few were alone, like I was, or were there with other women. They went to a superhero movie, voluntarily, and paid money to see it. All while mainstream comics are turning superheroines into blow-up dolls, in part because "chicks don't read comics anyway". And they're hemorrhaging money.

I’ve got news for you, comic-book industry: women are out there, and a bunch of them like stories about superheroes. You could be selling something they want to buy, and instead you’re selling Starfire’s breasts and Catwoman's butt. You’re hanging out a big “No Girls Allowed” sign on your clubhouse while the club is going bankrupt. I was smarter than this when I was fourteen years old. Don’t try to tell me a fourteen-year-old girl can crank out better stories than an entire industry full of people who’ve spent decades honing their storytelling skills. I know you guys can do better than this. You’re just choosing not to. 

Now, I’m perfectly happy to take your money and run. If you don’t want to go after this big, hungry market, I’ll merrily pursue it in your place, and reap the rewards. I expect to spend some time building up word of mouth on Masks, because I don’t have a big media conglomerate’s marketing department on my side, but it’s not rocket science. I know I can make money at this, and have fun doing it, even while giving away chapters for free and relying on the sales of trade collections to recoup my investment. I will gladly take advantage of the stupidity of the Big Two, and nip off with my little sliver of the pie. I can do wonderful things with even a sliver.

But wouldn’t it be better if someone in New York thought about making that pie twice as big?


  1. Shhh... Get your slice of the pie before they realize there's some left... Oh, wait. They're blind to reason, deaf to readers, and can't smell their own stink, much less pie. There's plenty of time for us small independent creators.

  2. I'm sure there's less time than we think (isn't that always the way with indie anything?), but in the meantime ... PIE!

  3. Well said. I'd picked up that issue of Catwoman and was a little shocked at that ending. It's weird to think about how "mature" comics have become. I was reading comic (though I was a strict non-DC reader) when I was just a kid, and I can't imagine kids being allowed to read a lot of today's comics. I certainly wouldn't want my kid (had I one) reading this last issue of Catwoman. Holy cow! Maybe they should make titles of the popular heroes that are kid-friendly. I know I'm getting away from your original point; I'm just free-thinking here I guess.

    But I agree with you. Girls are more into comics now than ever before. Ostracizing that part of the market seems like folly to me.

  4. DC did publish kid-friendly titles before the reboot, including TEEN TITANS GO! and a few others. Marvel also puts out kid-friendly titles, and there are great all-ages indie titles out there like LIONS, TIGERS AND BEARS, Michel Gagne's THE SAGA OF REX, and Aaron Williams' marvelous PS238 (plug, plug, plug). DC now seems to have dropped the kid books, though, which is rather a shame.

    But yeah, it's the fact that they deliberately exclude women this way that makes me crazy. I seem to recall learning on my first day at my first "real" job that if someone wants to buy what you're selling, or what you could be selling, YOU SELL IT TO THEM. Or you go home and stop whining about your lousy sales. But with a few obvious exceptions like selling cigarettes to children, this is a no-brainer.

    Alas, it seems DC has no brain ...

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  6. I have to say, that is so true. As a male comic reader, i could live without all the obviously not thought out sexuality in modern comics. The big players seem to think the only way to revitalize the industry is with tasteless pandering that excludes a sizable, and very important demographic. They are losing the sight of the goal of a comic: to tell a story that moves and engages the reader, not turn women into a commodity.

  7. I'm glad I read comics from the Young Justice family. I don't need to worry about this crap. The only time they pulled something like this was the first issue of The Ravagers with Fairchild in her underwear on the cover. After that, all the female characters were fully clothed.