DC Comics and the Elusive Female Demographic

Batgirl #1

September's Batgirl #1 by writer Gail Simone - representing DC's 1% of female creators in September

A controversy has been broiling in comics. When DC Comics announced their aggressive relaunch strategy, details were initially sparse but statements of looking for and expecting new readers were promising. Because comics needs new readers. But when the creative teams were announced, there was a decided lack of female creators and a curious dependence on creators that the publisher had relied on in the past with minimal influx of new readers.

Mainstream comics (which essentially refers to superhero comics from DC Comics and Marvel Comics) have been publishing comics primarily intended for the same insular group of readers for decades now, and finally that audience has dwindled away to a level where the publishers think maybe it’s time to somewhat kind of try to reach beyond that same audience. Multiple pundits and industry watchers have been calling for a more dramatic shift in publishing strategy for years. Comics’ most visible genre needs to be accessible and appealing to new audiences. You wouldn’t think this would require much convincing. New audiences = more money. But when large companies are given the options of safe, reliable income that is slowly shrinking vs. much more money with risks, they’ll always pick the safe option because corporate America is primarily driven by fear.

This isn’t to say that the faithful superhero comics fans can’t have their comics. Those comics should not be eliminated. They’re fun, they’re a great example of American myth building, and they have addictive pay-offs to loyalty. I still read them. Those comics should exist because there’s a built-in (albeit shrinking) audience ready to buy with a distribution network (comic book stores) structured for that specific audience. That network and that audience needs to be preserved.

But they should only be one aspect of a major publisher’s output, and they really shouldn’t be the dominant aspect when you see the ongoing sales trends. The primary concern, which should drive the dominant publishing strategy, should be new and/or casual readers, with the outcome that a percentage of those readers will transition into the addictive readers group. (They should also be distributed through other networks like bookstores and digital means, but that’s another topic.)

So, how do you get this new promised land of readers? Well, let’s look at the untapped demographics. We’ve got the white males 18-40 figured out. That primarily constitutes the addictive readers group. So good job, everyone. Check that one off the list. Let’s just check it again. Because seriously, we’ve been very thorough at targeting that demographic.

What’s an even larger demographic? How about over half of the world’s population? Yes, that demographic is out there! And it remains largely untapped in mainstream comics. That demographic is women! It’s not that there aren’t already female creators and readers of superhero comics. It’s not that there haven’t been superhero comics that reach out to women. There definitely are, but they are the exception to the rule, and they prove that there is a huge untapped sales potential.

So how do you create comics that bring in this amazingly large demographic ready to spend lots of money? The most common theory is that readers are attracted to characters that are relatable to them. People are drawn to characters that they can see themselves becoming or wish they could become. How do you have characters, either new or preexisting, that are relatable to women? The easiest way is to have another woman craft the stories (write and/or draw).

As much as we wish that everyone is the same, regardless of how they look and their genetic make-up, the world is an inconsistent place at times. People get treated differently. Groups of people get treated differently than other groups of people. Sometimes it’s really obvious, sometimes it’s very subtle, sometimes it’s imperceptible. But it all has an effect. Those experiences shape a person’s world view and it definitely shapes how they consume entertainment. I can be the most sensitive and empathic person on the planet, but I can never fully understand what living like a certain group of people day to day is like, just as other groups can’t understand what living like other groups is like. So again, the easiest way to create characters and stories that connect to a certain group you wish to attract is to employ people from that same group.

So now we come back to DC Comics and their New 52 publishing initiative. They reportedly went from having 12% of their creative teams comprising of women, down to just over 1%. For a publishing initiative intending to reach new audiences, that’s a very strange shift. You might say it’s contradictory. So people pointed this out. Some did so rather passionately because of their love for comics. People wrote online. And at this summer’s Comic-Con, people spoke up. Repeatedly. In response, DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio rather abrasively shot back with “Who should we have hired?” This, of course, just made it worse. Because when you have a Q&A portion of a panel, typically how it works is the audience provides the Q’s and the panelists provide the A’s. Making your audience uncomfortable, especially when that audience is the one you’re trying to convince to buy your products, is what you might call a bad PR move. In fact, it’s ridiculously irresponsible. And unsurprisingly, it just resulted in more attention on the issue and more heat on the publisher. Like here, here, here and here to name a few.

DC Comics finally relented when Co-Publishers DiDio and Jim Lee published “We Hear You” on their blog. Without acknowledging the embarrassing Comic-Con panels, the letter promised that female creators were in the pipeline for future projects. I suppose you could ask why female creators weren’t “good enough” to be part of the initial September launch, but at least they got the message. Finally.

And yet, I’m still seeing people online post how they don’t think people should be hired based on what they look like, they just want the best people for the job. What they don’t understand is that the uproar was never some affirmative action campaign. It was about making smart and reasonable choices to preserve and even grow comics, exactly what the New 52 was supposedly designed to be about. Because as explained above, the best people to write comics that will appeal to women will usually be women. This doesn’t eliminate male-targeted comics. And it doesn’t mean there won’t be crossover appeal because entertainment preferences aren’t strictly defined by gender alone. But it’s a no-brainer in courting a very powerful demographic that, make no mistake, comics needs.

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3 comments

  1. Personally, when I think of the most visible and mainstream comics, whether it be sales or distribution, I think not of DC/Marvel but of manga, which seems to be quite evenly represented as far as male and female creators are concerned, but putting that aside for the moment:

    The fundamental core of the superhero comic is the resolution of conflict through the application of violence. Certainly, there are emotionally resonant moments of dialogue and character introspection, but all of it is ultimately in service to a fight which is primarily physical in nature so the heroes can apply their superhuman abilities. This narrative premise is the basis of many a “genre” work: the western, the war story, the martial arts/kung fu tale, the samurai/ninja period piece, and so on and so forth.

    Historically, for a variety of reasons the female demographic is predominantly not interested in any of these types of stories. They don’t buy them, read/watch them, and generally aren’t all that interested in creating them. This may be as simple as “there just weren’t that many female gunslingers,” “women haven’t been fighting on the front lines for quite as long,” “female martial artists are usually limited to the realms of martial arts fantasy/wuxia along with a fad period of the 80s/90s,” or some other scarcity-related matter, but I think another possibility is that the concept just doesn’t appeal to a majority of them.

    Focusing purely on comics for the moment, when I look at the totality of comics that are created, most of the female comics creators have made works which do not center around resolving conflicts through violence. The worlds of webcomics, self-publishing, independent press, and international comics all seem to confirm this observation. I can only conclude that the “superhero” story is one that appeals far more to boys/men than girls/women, just as the western does.

    As such, it is wholly possible that the untapped demographic for superhero comics is not actually “half the world’s population.” I don’t think there is an “amazingly large” demographic of ladies willing to spend large sums of money on *superhero* comicbooks. I think there is an amazingly large demographic of ladies willing to spend large sums of money on *other* comicbooks, such that the ones interested in superheroes are a highly vocal minority.

    Therefore, I don’t think the proposed solution is “get more women to write superhero comicbooks for women.” I think the better solution is “acknowledge that superhero comicbooks are not the only comicbooks that matter, and in fact aren’t even the mainstream comicbooks anymore.” Once that is done, then I think you’ll see the percentage of female comics creators and consumers will become much more equalized.

    1. Hi Daryl,

      Great points. Thanks for reading and posting.

      Absolutely agreed that manga and other non-superhero comics have much more to offer in bringing in a much more diverse readership. I’ve harped on that here in the past, it’s addressed in the documentary I helped produce Dig Comics and I’m sure I’ll talk about it again. Superhero comics are by no means the end-all, be-all.

      But there ARE women who enjoy superhero comics. They really do exist. I’ve seen them in comic book stores and book stores, I’ve met them, I’ve spoken with them, I’ve read their blogs. They are not mythical. It is not a hypothetical. They even like the action, they like the kick-ass-ness. But they’re frustrated and insulted by the degrading eye candy and stereotypes that consistently pop up, whether unintentionally or not. Why cut off that audience? Why turn away money? Why keep superhero comics strictly a boys club? It’s bad business, and considering the public awareness of comics, it’s bad PR for comics (which is just barely now reversing decades of bad PR).

    2. You obviously haven’t seen stuff like Sailor Moon, Utena, Evangelion, Magic Knight Rayearth, and scores of other anime and manga series. All of these are about “super heros” (some more than others) and rely on violence for conflict resolution; Magic Knight Rayearth (which is considered a girls’ manga) is one of the bloodiest comics I’ve ever seen. Superhero comics don’t appeal to more females because 1) females are underrepresented, misrepresented, trivialized and over sexualized in them to the point of being blatantly sexist and 2) there is not enough character development. (I’m sure there are other reasons but those are the two that stick out to me.) Violence isn’t the reason women don’t read them.

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