I recently had a conversation with 5 brilliant, creative, funny women who are up and coming (if not already established) in the world of comics. I asked artists Rebekah Isaacs (Hack/Slash, Drafted) & Amy Reeder Hadley (Fool’s Gold, Madame Xanadu), journalists Johanna Draper Carlson (Comics Worth Reading) & Angela Paman (Comic Addiction), and web-comics creator Julia Wertz (The Fart Party) about their thoughts on the state of women in the comics industry. Everyone was very vocal about their opinions and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of diversity. I hope that this can be a springboard for more of these types of healthy conversations in the industry.
1) IS BEING A FEMALE ARTIST (OR WRITER) A NON-ISSUE IN TODAY’S INDUSTRY?
Johanna: No, not at all. The core of the American comic business — the entrenched superhero publishers — is still female-unfriendly, with a horrible track record of hiring women, either as staff or freelance talent. And plenty of areas of recognition — such as awards or gallery shows or convention guest lists — see nothing wrong with all-male rosters. It’s still very much an industry based on who you know, and many of the decision-makers are more comfortable working with guys like themselves, college buddies and the like.
Rebekah: I wish I could disagree, but there are unfortunately still preconceived notions about how women are “supposed” to draw that can affect a female’s ability to get attention or work in mainstream comics. Among these are the ideas that women draw only cute things, only female characters, children, or teenagers, only manga-style, nothing violent, bloody, or action-packed. And it’s not only men who may have these preconceptions! Fortunately, I’ve met many creators and editors who, while they may be surprised to meet a girl who doesn’t draw the way they expect, are very fair in their hiring and ultimately only care about ability, not gender. I was very lucky to get in with Devil’s Due, because they have absolutely no misgivings about putting a female artist on projects that are totally male-oriented. All that matters is your ability to do the work well and on time, as should always be the case!
Amy: I know being female is still an issue in some ways, but from what I can tell, it’s getting much better. In fact, I honestly think some of my good fortune entering the mainstream comics world came FROM being female. I’ve felt completely welcome working for DC Comics, and I think people are just so happy to see a new female creator. They want diversity. It’s good for the medium and it’s good for business.
Julia: I think it’s become less of an issue while the pool of women cartoonists grows. I think it’s still surprising to find women in mainstream comics, but the alternative comics scene has a large number of female cartoonists involved with it. So in regards to alt. comics, I’d say it’s no longer an issue. (Although we do have to deal with Cathy jokes constantly).
2) DO YOU TAKE PRIDE IN CERTAIN ARTISTS & WRITERS (OR YOURSELF) FOR BEING FEMALE OR JUST SIMPLY FOR BEING AN ARTIST OR WRITER?
Julia: I take pride only in being a creator, not in the fact that I’m female.
Johanna: What matters most is the quality of the work, but I am more interested in trying new work by women. I want to read comics that reflect my interests and perspective and life experiences, and that’s more likely to happen when creators understand what being a woman means. That’s not impossible for a male, but it’s harder for them, and they have to be willing to work at it. Many would rather not, which is understandable — it’s easier to create for people like them.
Amy: I take pride in being a female artist, sure! I like being different, and I feel like I have something to offer because I have fairly feminine tastes. Sometimes I feel like I need to apologize for my art being so feminine, since I want both sexes to like it, but I try to get past that. I mean, it’s not like I can’t enjoy masculine art.
Johanna: It’s still the case that women will read works aimed at men, while vice versa doesn’t happen as much or as easily. Probably because the male audience is used to being catered to, and they kick up a fuss when there’s any indication that they’re no longer the center of a publisher’s attention.
Angela: If you asked me this question a few years ago, I would’ve said I do take pride in artists or writers for being female. When I first started reading comics, I didn’t see or know of any female comic creators. It is different now. It is not about being female but about putting out quality work regardless of what one’s gender is.
Rebekah: I really just want to be a comic book artist, plain and simple.
3) WHAT FEMALE CREATORS, HISTORICALLY OR MORE RECENTLY, HAVE TAKEN THE BIGGEST STRIDE IN OPENING THE DOORS FOR NEW FEMALE CREATORS?
Johanna: Colleen Doran has been indispensable for telling stories of how the creative life really is for women. She’s been pilloried for it, but it takes great courage just to speak out honestly. I applaud Carla Speed McNeil for putting out an amazing self-created and self-published series, Finder, that I think is pure genius. Both have had to do a lot on their own, showing it can be done but it takes a lot of hard work. And sheer cussedness. Then there’s Alison Bechdel. Her Fun Home deserved all of the praise it received, and I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes about what comics could be and achieve.
Angela: Louise Simonson opened the doors for females in the comic book industry. Gail Simone made people aware of women being disrespected in comics with “Women in Refrigerators”. Christina Strain is a colorist who does a fantastic job on her books. Becky Cloonan does an impeccable job as an artist. Shelly Bond does a fantastic job as an editor for Vertigo and Minx.
Julia: Friends of Lulu has done a lot of promotion for women in comics. Trina Robbin’s did that book, A Century of Women Cartoonists that highlights work done by women as early as around the 1900’s. I think she’s been an outstanding voice of support for female cartoonists, although like I said before, since there are so many now, I think people are less inclined to want to make an issue of it.
4) WHAT ROLE HAS MANGA PLAYED IN BRINING IN NEW FEMALE READERS & CREATORS?
Julia: Besides bringing scores of young japanese female readers to the medium, I have no clue.
Angela: I think it’s the fact that the majority of them are compact. They are basically small enough to fit in one’s handbag. Not to mention, you get your money’s worth with it compared to a graphic novel. The majority of the Manga stories are usually self-contained and reasonably priced compared to a graphic novel.
Johanna: Manga finally showed what a big lie “oh, women and girls don’t read comics” is. It was received wisdom at the big American companies for decades, but the truth was, women and girls don’t read comics that don’t interest them. Give them something they can relate to and get lost in, and they’ll drive the biggest revolution in bookstore sales this decade.
Rebekah: I’m happy to see that manga has opened up the field of comics to many females, but it often seems that they get stuck in that niche and rarely give other genres a try. There are many exceptions of course, and I also feel that marketing is largely to blame in the case of readership.
Johanna: As for creators, I don’t think we’ve yet seen the results of that wave. People want to do what they love, so getting lost in comics as a kid or teen may fuel the desire to create as an adult. Much of the manga-reading generation hasn’t yet reached that point; when they do, watch out!
Amy: I think manga has not only brought in female creators, but also female creators who don’t have to worry about fitting in AS females. Or at least that’s how I experienced it–I started with Tokyopop, and most of the other creators I knew were women. And all I read was manga meant for girls and young women. I was in a female comics bubble! So it didn’t even cross my mind, how I fit into the comics world, until I started being approached by Marvel and DC Comics.
Rebekah: I really admire manga as an art form that encourages diversity and it’s certainly had a large influence on my style. It’s troubling, though, to see many young artists (male and female!) using the “manga style” as a crutch by simply aping the style of their favorite manga-ka without first learning how to properly draw the human figure, facial expressions, backgrounds, and props. But to be fair, this happens a lot among fans of other genres of comics.
5) DO YOU THINK THE REASON BEHIND SO FEW FEMALE CREATORS IN MAINSTREAM COMICS IS DUE TO ANY SORT OF BIAS OR JUST THE NUMBERS GAME THAT THERE ARE MORE MALE READERS? OR ARE WOMEN JUST LESS INTERESTED IN MAINSTREAM (SUPERHERO) SUBJECT MATTER?
Amy: I think it’s sort of a chicken-and-the-egg problem. If we had more readers, we’d have more creators, but we need more creators if we want to get more readers. So if the mainstream comics industry wants to expand their readership to include more women, they have to make investments in female creators and characters and stories that females can be interested in. The problem, then, is how to help women know that such comics are out there, because sometimes word of mouth just isn’t fast enough.
Rebekah: Branching off from what I said above, girls are often not expected to be able to draw the material (superheroes, particularly the male variety, and action scenes) as well as guys. And while I hate to admit it, there’s a good reason for that: how many guys out there spent their childhood drawing GI Joes or their favorite superheroes doing battle? Probably 99%. But what about the ladies? Next to zilch. Girls are typically discouraged from watching those kind of shows, playing with those kinds of toys, and definitely from reading comics (that don’t have Barbie in the title). So naturally, when those girls grow up, even if have developed an interest in “boy stuff” on their own, it usually takes them longer to develop a sense of how mainstream comics are drawn simply because they haven’t been exposed to it from birth like their male counterparts. This imbalance really has to be repaired at the root of the problem — the ridiculous gender roles our society places on both sexes during childhood. And marketing is definitely a problem. So many mainstream comics that are viewed as exclusively male-friendly would be much loved by female readers — if they had ever even heard of them!
Johanna: I reject using the term “mainstream” to mean “superheroes”. The true mainstream are those buying Fun Home or Persepolis or even junky manga series (as with any genre or medium, there’s great manga and not-so-great) in bookstores. Superheroes are a niche genre in what was, until recently, a niche medium.
Angela: I think it’s a little bit of everything. Some might be disappointed because of a bias to cater to the male audience. For others it’s probably a lack of interest in superheroes. I also think it’s a perception people have in regards to comics. Although, I do see more women in comics than I did when I first started reading them.
Julia: I think that women are just less interested in mainstream (superhero) subjects. Most women in comics do alternative narratives and I think it’s just a gender trait that can’t be blamed on societal standards or any sort of bias. Some feminists may laud at my saying this, but women are genetically more, er, sensitive? and tend to avoid the violent/superhero comics if only by default or disinterest. I read some of them, but honestly, they don’t hold my attention like alternative and autobio narratives do. I can’t speak for all women in comics, of course, but I know many who feel the same way.
Johanna: I think there are multiple reasons behind the lack of female superhero creators. One is sexism on the part of the decision-makers at those companies. Some of it’s overt — editors that believe that women can’t draw good superheroes or those who held creative meetings at the nearby strip joint. Some of it’s unconscious, shy men who don’t relate to women as anything but “the other”, something they desire but have trouble even talking to. They hire other men, those they’re more comfortable working with. (And some of the women in high-up positions at those companies aren’t necessarily supportive of others of their gender, because they’re more comfortable being “the only girl in the room”.)
Another is lack of interest. Working in comics is not a sensible economic decision, so it takes something else to drive someone to struggle to succeed in it. For a lot of men, it’s love of the characters that they’ve read since they were kids. Women, for the most part, don’t have that drive, since the stories don’t speak to them and the art is often offensive. Many women I know who have gone into that field were more attracted by the movie or TV or cartoon portrayals than the print comics.
A third is cultural pressure — women aren’t allowed to be geeks or indulge in geeky behavior, like making their own comics or attending conventions, the way men are. There are others, but those are the biggest coming to mind right now.
Amy: I have to say, though, that not only female creators can create comics that women enjoy. In my opinon, some male creators seem to get women better that most women creators do. I think that’s an important thing to recognize, because we’ll sometimes hear complaints about men creating comics for women, and how women should be doing it. It’s important for women to have opportunities in the industry, but I also think having men create these is a step forward. Normally it’s the other way around, that women embrace things geared more toward men, whereas the reverse is associated with some sort of shame. We’ve got to change that!
6) IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU THINK CREATORS & PUBLISHERS CAN BE MORE “FEMALE-FRIENDLY” WITH THEIR BOOKS?
Angela: I think if they came out with more books similar to the format like the Minx line but had topics or stories catered to not just one specific age group but for different age groups. Comics got me to loving reading again and I think to myself, “if comics got me into reading at my age, what more someone younger than me”. Publishing more books for the younger audience would also help as well.
Johanna: The biggest gap still remaining is work that adult women can find interesting and appealing. Manga is mostly teen-targeted, and many “indy/alternative” books still reflect a male perspective.
Rebekah: I truly believe that so much of what’s being published today IS female-friendly, but is not being marketed towards females in any way. I don’t believe that simply adding strong, “empowered” female characters to a book makes any difference, since women with enough good taste to appreciate a well-written story will equally love books with both male and female-dominated casts. So doing such can come across as condescending. Publishers just have to find a way to get their ads and press out there to a more diverse audience. And comics readers, suggest your favorite titles to ALL of your friends, not just the ones who also read comics.
Johanna: I don’t have a problem with superhero comics staying a genre aimed at the young adult white male, with so many other, better options out there for women and girls. My problem comes when people mistake superhero comics for the whole (or the majority) of the medium, or when they say “comics” when they only mean the narrow superhero niche.
Amy: I have a philosophy that there are things out there that stereotypically attract men, and things that stereotypically attract women, and then there are intelligent things, which will attract both sexes. It’s what binds us together. Just as a sappy, cliche love story alienates most men, action- and cleavage- filled comics alienate most women. Add intelligence to it, and more of the opposite sex can accept it.
Johanna: If publishers want to create more books appealing to women, they need to do two things: hire women, and find out what their target audience really wants. Too many decision-makers rely on passed-down wisdom about how things are based on how they’ve been, without realizing that times, markets, and possibilities have changed. I’m reminded of the stupid comments the Supergirl editor made about how his book, featuring a badly drawn, anatomically exaggerated lead character wearing next to nothing, was aiming at girls by putting in a guy who showed some chest hair in his costume. He clearly knew nothing about what female readers wanted or considered important in their reading.
Amy: When it comes to specifics, I think the most important thing creators should think about is making their female characters more human and complex. They can be sexy, but no chick’s going to identify with a girl who’s nothing but a stereotypical male fantasy.
Thanks again to Rebekah, Amy, Johanna, Angela, & Julia for taking the time to answer my questions!
Please check out all their latest work at the links above.
UPDATE: To those of you who are complaining (on other sites) that you’ve seen this kind of thing 1000 times before, I would just like to say, this interview is not for you. I’ve received far more responses from people who haven’t thought about these issues before and who appreciate the interview. And if just one young girl can read this and be encouraged by the women above to enter the industry as a creator or a reader, then it would be worth it.