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.
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.