Judging a Book by its Cover: How Women See Comic Books

A column article, The Squeaky Wheel by: Kyrax2

Want to know a secret?

Comic books are dying.

So thinks Alan Moore, who in a recent interview commented:

"I suppose my basic feelings about the comic industry as it stands are that I just hope its final death rattle isn't too humiliating or too desperate, because it's deserved. If the industry is incapable of coming up with new ideas and a future that it can evolve into, then it really doesn't deserve to survive."

So, too, says DC, who stated with unusual bluntness at San Diego Comic Con that a big part of their reason for relaunching their entire line of comics was that their sales have been dropping steadily.

If the mainstream comics industry is dying, how can it save itself?

DC, at least, is trying several things. For one, the aforementioned relaunch. For another, they are starting full digital distribution: releasing digital copies of their latest comics on the same day that those titles become available in comic shops. Both of these are pretty extreme steps, and the pre-orders for the #1 issues are way up. Whether these will translate into sales of #2s -- or #12s -- remains to be seen.

There is something else that DC and its perennial competitor, Marvel, could be doing to draw in new readers. There's an entire segment of the population they could be courting, but aren't. That's right. I'm talking about women.

There's a long-standing perception that "girls don't read comics." Well, I've got another secret for you.

Women do read comics.

Many of today's young women read manga like Sailor Moon, and One Piece, and Naruto, and Bleach, and Death Note. They grew up reading the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer comics that followed the end of the show. They grew up reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman. They grew up reading sequential art.

In other words, they grew up reading comic books.

If very few women are buying American superhero comics, it's not because women don't like the comic format. If most women aren't buying superhero comics, it's because the companies that make said comics, namely Marvel and DC, aren't making comics they want to read.

How can Marvel and DC make comics that more women want to read? Well, a good place to start would be to think about how the comics they're currently making come across to this potential market.

Consider, for a moment, if a comic starring Nightwing were brought out and described by the writer as a "sexy, dirty book." Imagine if she talked about how sexy Nightwing would be, proudly emphasizing this as the single most important aspect of the character.

Hey, I would buy it. A lot of other women probably would too. However, try to imagine the reaction from male comic book fans. A lot of them would be angry. A lot of them would be offended. The writer and artist on the book would certainly be accused of pandering to the female audience. A lot of male fans would refuse to buy the book.

At San Diego Comic Con 2011, Judd Winick described the new Catwoman as a "sexy, dirty book." He stated -- proudly and with great enthusiasm -- that he'd used the word "sexy" over fifty times the last time he'd been interviewed about the upcoming comic.

A lot of female fans won't be picking up Catwoman. And when they say so, they are told that the comic isn't "for them" and that they are "too sensitive." They are told, "if you don't like it, don't buy it" -- sometimes in the same breath as, "if you want to see more female leads, you have to buy all the books with female leads."

Catwoman is not being marketed to women. Some women will buy it, but they are not the target audience any more than women are the target audience for Playboy magazine. Protagonists of both genders can certainly be sexy characters. But when the only thing you're selling about a protagonist is their sex appeal, your title is either going to be perceived as softcore pornography or a romance novel.

Catwoman is not an anomaly. Every time a woman picks up a comic book, she is treated to images like the White Rabbit, Batman's newest adversary, who apparently models for Victoria's Secret and Playboy in her spare time:

And Harley Quinn in her much-derided new midriff-baring corset:

And Marvel's infamous Heroes for Hire tentacle-rape cover:

And if you think she's being "too sensitive" when she states that this is something she doesn't want to read, please imagine it's your mother on one of those covers. Imagine it's your sister. Imagine it's your daughter. Find a woman in your life you respect, and imagine her in that costume, in that position, on the cover for everyone to see. Imagine her cosplaying any one of those characters. Now imagine being told that you're "too sensitive" if the idea makes you uncomfortable.

Female characters do not have to be hyper-sexualized to sell. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was one of the most popular television shows of all time and it starred a young woman who was, for all intents and purposes, a female superhero. The difference between her and the women between the covers of your average superhero comic was that she didn't fall into a Penthouse-esque pose every time she stopped moving, or wear clothing that could only have stayed on with the use of a lot of glue or an anti-gravity device.

Buffy was sexy. Buffy had sex. But neither of these defined her.

Women are a huge market that major American comic book publishers such as DC and Marvel absolutely fail to interest and engage. The first step in appealing to the members of this huge, untapped market is for comics producers to treat them with simple respect. Can the industry do more to appeal to women? They can do a lot more! But first the industry needs to get more women in the door. It doesn't matter how great the interior art or how clever and well-written the story is, a lot of women will pass right over a book if the cover looks like, say Marvel Divas.

An influx of female readers could be just the transfusion that the anemic mainstream comics industry needs to survive. But if Marvel and DC are truly so short-sighted and so incapable of appealing to anyone beyond their very narrow core market that they can't even begin to find a way to bring in female readers, maybe Alan Moore is right. Maybe they don't deserve to survive.

The Final Squeak

The other day a friend sent me a link to an old post on Livejournal (also mirrored at Dreamwith) by odditycollector. Though the post is several years old, it is as relevant (and hilarious) as it was when it was first put up. It demonstrated what it would look like if mainstream comic books hypersexualized men to the same degree that they do women.

Odditycollecter has kindly given permission to share the below photo manipulations and accompanying commentary. The "scripts," in case you're unfamiliar with the style, are parodies of Frank Miller's characteristic script-writing.

Hal's flying away from us through a generic starfield, nothing interesting to see except him. Have him wriggle around, giving us a good shot of his package. Add some details, something fancy for the fanboys to drool over, but don't let it draw attention away from the point of the cover -- that Kyle has nothing, NOTHING, on my boy Hal.

Be careful with this one -- we don't want Supes to come off as too powerful, too imposing. Maybe have him lean a bit, off balance, the better to show off his *well filled* briefs. He's fiddling with the waist line, such a cock *heh* tease. He knows he's got what we want, and if we turn the cover, he'll let us have it.

Well, we've done just about every variation on the theme by now, so let's go back to the basics: Black on black, a full cover shot of Batman's ass. Add in the utility belt for colour -- give it that Sin City look. Show me thick, powerful legs under that latex or whatever the hell he wears. Clenched butt muscles. Make it obvious this is no BatGIRL we're talking about.

You can listen to the audio version of this post below:

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