Of Batwomen And Squirrel Girls: Why Comics Are Becoming Increasingly Female

By Christopher Borrelli Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Marvel and DC, historically the largest comic book publishers, won't release customer demographics, but the past couple of years have seen several studies, from among others Publishers Weekly and Amazon's popular Comixology hub for online comics, that suggest between 30 and 50 percent of new comic book readers in recent years have been female.

Chicago Tribune

The origin story of Amy Chu, mild-mannered Harvard MBA from New Jersey, turned brand-name superhero scribe, goes like this: As a jet-setting business consultant, life was humming along, but she remained unsatisfied. Until about six years ago, when she ran into a friend from college with a prescient idea: Comic books for young women. The market looked underserved, but Chu knew nothing about comics. So she did research. She took an online comics-writing class ("I had no idea what they were talking about"), and with her friend, Georgia Lee, now a writer at the SyFy channel, flew to Chicago, to attend C2E2, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, take notes, make contacts.

"We're two women, just walking around this convention, and one of our first experiences is checking out the artists area and getting asked by guys if we'd model," Chu said. "It was way worse than Wall Street, nobody on Wall Street ever asked me to model. And you'd get mansplained all the time, on everything. Nobody cared about a Harvard MBA."

Still, she took to comics like a natural, and within a couple of years, Chu was writing for Wonder Woman and Deadpool and Poison Ivy and Ant-Man. Her timing had been right.

"I wouldn't say it's great now for women in comics," she said. "It's no advantage. People still question your professional credibility all the time. But we are getting closer to parity."

Indeed, when C2E2 2017 begins Friday at McCormick Place, the comic book publishing industry will look much more female than it has been in decades, from the crime fighters leaping across its pages, to the writers and artists and editors who created them. The notable characters represented at C2E2 this year by a writer or artist include the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Batwoman, Spider-Gwen, Supergirl, Batgirl and a newly female Thor; among the several female creators attending are Chu, Jordie Bellaire ("Dr. Strange") and Kate Leth ("Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat!!"), who started an online forum named Beware the Valkyries exclusively for female comic book store employees.

Marvel and DC, historically the largest comic book publishers, won't release customer demographics, but the past couple of years have seen several studies, from among others Publishers Weekly and Amazon's popular Comixology hub for online comics, that suggest between 30 and 50 percent of new comic book readers in recent years have been female.

"This is certainly the strongest moment in ages for women, in terms of representation for creators and characters," said Hope Nicholson, author of a new history, "The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen."

"In the 1940s, in the golden age of comics, female readership was on par with male. Torchy Brown, one of the first female characters in comics, was made by a black woman, who kept the merchandising rights! In the 1930s! Only now is it returning to anything like parity, and I think that's because women have a million new entry points now, like social media and web comics."

Of course, on movie and TV screens, where you're more likely to encounter superheroes now, the picture is spottier: DC finally has a Wonder Woman movie (June 2), Marvel has a "Captain Marvel" film (starring Brie Larson) in the works, and its Netflix series "Jessica Jones" is arguably Marvel's TV high point so far. But there are no signs of Scarlett Johansson's popular, long-running Black Widow getting her own movie; and other than Catwoman, Suicide Squad's Harley Quinn (in hot pants) is DC's finest hour.

Even at C2E2, the vast majority of writers and artists are male. Which is beginning to look like a disconnect: Walk the hallways of McCormick and you are as likely to run into a cosplay Black Widow as a cosplay Iron Man. And when a Marvel Comics vice president created a stir recently by saying the ethnic and gender diversity of its superheroes has hurt sales, he came off more tone deaf than pragmatic. In March, to honor Women's History Month, Challengers Comics in Bucktown hosted an almost-nightly talk series with female creators of comics.

Owner Patrick Brower said he was, in a way, also being practical: "Without question, the majority of new customers we get now are women. And that's because there's more representation, and not just of gender but sexuality, religion. I'm a middle-class white guy who grew up with white superheroes, and I never thought, 'This is for me,' because of course it was. But when you get a Ms. Marvel, who is a female Muslim teenage hero? That's an industry holding up a mirror to its audience."

Ms. Marvel, among the creative watermarks for comics recently, was a breakthrough. Now there's a Chinese Superman, a black Captain America. Thor is a woman. Batwoman is a lesbian. Independent publishers have been even stronger with strong female characters: The best-reviewed, most popular indie titles in recent years are either written, drawn and starring women ("Bitch Planet," "Monstress"), or written by men featuring strong females, in particular Brian K. Vaughan's "Saga" and "Paper Girls." The landscape for female comic book creators has been so promising lately that some don't recall a time when the industry wasn't as accommodating: Jenny Frison, an artist from Chicago whose work been on the cover of "Wonder Woman" and "Revival," said, "It's not like it was 20 years ago. I've heard the stories, of conventions with no women at all, of the industry not having any women. That's never been true for me. There are not as many (women) but I've always been working with women _ multiple women."

Jill Thompson remembers.

She grew up in Forest Park and lives in Chicago and began drawing comics in the 1980s. Her acclaimed work has been seen in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman," "Wonder Woman" and her own "Scary Godmother" series. "But when I first started, I would go to comic conventions and there would always be this one other female artist, who I ran across all the time," she said. "We would always get confused for each other. But I didn't find it as hard as other (women). Maybe because I had a great group of male friends (in the business), and when I was rejected I assumed it was because I wasn't good enough as an artist. But also, before, women weren't as vocal about being included, and now, they are completely comfortable talking about comic books. It'd be hard not to notice."

C2E2 is particularly strong this year if you're into smart female characters. Here are a handful of the best being represented by their current creators.

The Former Sidekick Batgirl Created: 1961, Sheldon Moldoff (artist), Bill Finger (writer) New creators: "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey," Shawna and Julie Benson (writers), Claire Roe (artist)

If ever a character embodied the history of female superheroes, it's Batgirl: She had been Robin's love interest, and Batman's child; played lighter-than-air by Yvonne Craig on TV (and Alicia Silverstone on film); reworked as a sexy librarian and crime-fighting daughter of Commissioner Gordon; paralyzed by the Joker; improbably given use of her legs again. Despite being part of Bat-mythology for a half-century, she didn't get her own comic until 2000. But since then, Batgirl has been a core DC figure: Writer Gail Simone's "Batgirl" (which started in 2011, and gave Batgirl a transgender roommate) felt so definitive, Joss Whedon (of "The Avengers" and "Buffy") just started a Batgirl movie.

Batgirl is now popular enough to headline two comics: "Batgirl," and "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey," which is written by Shawna and Julie Benson from Morton, Ill., outside Peoria. "Batgirl and the Birds are a family, so I think we bring a sisterly bond to their voices that's unique," said Julie, who with her sister also writes "The 100" for the CW. Shawna notes Simone's take "made (Batgirl) feel more like she was part of the times. She gave us that question of what it means to be a young female superhero in 2017. The predominant themes in the '90s for entertainment created by women was you can have it all. Now I think it's, how do you do it well? So we're writing somewhat the women who came up behind the women who broke through glass ceilings. Barbara Gordon was rebelling, and now she owns her own company. 'BatGIRL' is just a name."

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