Digging A Little Extra Harder: How a Showdown at SDCC Could Change Gender Politics in the Comics Industry
By Nick Hanover
For comicdom, 2011 may go down as the year when the elephants in the room stopped sitting idly by waiting to get noticed and just started trampling everything in their immediate path. Digital comics stopped becoming a novelty and turned into an impossible to ignore demand, with sales skyrocketing thanks in large part to the ubiquity of the iPad. And as mainstream sales continue to plunge, publishers have had to face the ugly reality that the old methods might not be working anymore.
Which is what provoked DC, the older of the Big Two, to take the decidedly desperate approach of relaunching their entire publishing line with 52 newly redesigned series come September, all of which will be published day-and-date digitally. DC's decision was met with reactions ranging from awe at the bold move to skepticism to fierce protest, including a literal protest staged at SDCC. But the important thing was that DC's ploy essentially worked. Everyone was talking about the relaunch, regardless of whether that talk was optimistic, skeptical or cautionary. So DC was understandably proud of their efforts when they went into SDCC, comfortably aware that they had the spotlight directly on their bold new move and that the world was watching.
Unfortunately for DC, that spotlight soon wound up shining directly on one decidedly weak area of their new line-- gender equality.
In June, Tim Hanley of Bleeding Cool wrote a piece on the astonishingly small number of female creators involved in the relaunch, a number he calculated to be at less than 2% with a total of two women involved in the new books, with Gail Simone alone accounting for 2/3 of the female representation on the new titles. While Gail Simone did take to her Twitter account to say that there were other female creators who were spoken to about the relaunch but for whatever reason were unavailable, uninterested or just didn't work out, even she admitted that "we need more female creators, stat." The topic was fiercely debated in many corners but it wasn't until SDCC that it reached a fever pitch, thanks largely to the efforts of one person.
Kyrax2, as she's known on-line, was first interested in comics through Batman: The Animated Series, which drew her in with its "tradition of telling simple yet powerful stories." It was that series that inspired her to cosplay at SDCC as Batgirl, an image that became especially fitting when she began to ask questions at DC's panels at SDCC. That's because in more ways than one, Batgirl is at the center of the diversity debate, a female character who as Barbara Gordon was handicapped and transformed into a character that for some has become an even more powerful symbol of diversity thanks to the injury that put her in a wheelchair. She's also at the center of one of the relaunch's most anticipated books, which is to be written by Gail Simone, DC's lone female writer on the relaunch and someone whose career really took off thanks to her use of Barbara Gordon in the Birds of Prey series.
The irony of Kyrax2's costume may be part of what turned her into a folk hero of sorts for those questioning DC's commitment to diversity despite not being the first to ask questions about the lack of female creators involved in the relaunch. But it was the pairing of that symbolism with Kyrax2's devotion to the subject despite the unfavorable reception she was prepared for from DC, if not the fans.
"At the beginning of the very first panel I attended on the very first day, I heard a man ask about female creators in comics, and a strong response from Dan DiDio. The clip of this exchange has since made its way around the internet, and I think that, in fairness to DiDio, I should mention that I later read that he approached this man afterward and spoke with him very civilly. I didn't know this at the time, however," Kyrax2 told us via chat, "So, when I asked the question I did about whether DC was committed to hiring more women, I was expecting a similar reaction, and I was prepared to stand my ground until I got a straight answer. What I was not prepared for was the hostility of the audience."
Kyrax2 believes that the audience's hostility didn't necessarily have to do with her points about gender diversity but instead concerned the perceived attacks on their favorite characters. Speaking out at a Justice League panel, Kyrax2 specifically mentioned she "couldn't think of any truly iconic female heroines other than Wonder Woman," a statement that was met with "a huge outcry."
"Perhaps people felt the need to defend their favorite characters, or perhaps I had simply committed the terrible sin of showing that I was not as expert as they, and therefore had no right to speak," Kyrax2 said.
As word spread about "the female fan posing as Batgirl and asking questions about female creators at DC panels," Kyrax2 was recognized at the panels she'd appear at, which she says made some audience members "prepared to react with anger to anything I said." It was at this point that Kyrax2 felt the uglier side of the debate began to show itself.
"I think people believed that I was asking that quotas or some sort of affirmative action be instituted. This was not what I meant at all," Kyrax2 said, "In retrospect, perhaps I should have asked, 'Are you committed to hiring more women who are qualified?' I strongly believed at the time I asked that question that there must be more women out there who were both talented enough to work for DC, and who wanted to work for DC, and that they simply weren't being hired."
Nonetheless, Kyrax2 wasn't the only person at the con or elsewhere asking for the same things nor the only one baffled by DiDio's token response of "we hire the best people." Heidi MacDonald posted a piece on the exchange that Kyrax2 mentioned between DiDio and a male fan, identified there as the manager of a comic book shop called Emerald Knights. MacDonald goes on to describe the post-panel discussion Kyrax2 referred to, where DiDio again reiterated the "best people" remark, much to MacDonald's chagrin. While MacDonald is quick to point out that lots of people of both genders turned down offers to work on the relaunch for various reasons, she also comes to a similar conclusion as Kyrax2, that the number of female readers is increasing dramatically and it's in DC's best interest to work that much harder to represent that demographic.
"Comics are traditionally a male hobby, and for many years their target market has been male. The people who grow up reading comic books tend to be the ones that most want to work in the comics industry. If this pool is mostly male, well, it's understandable that men will be hired more often than women. However, this dynamic is changing, and changing quickly," Kyrax2 said, "There is now a whole generation of women who have grown up watching shows like B:TAS and reading Japanese manga. There are more women who want to work in the comic industry than ever before, talented, capable, driven women who deserve the chance to prove themselves. And in another ten years there will be even more. I know no fewer than three young women in college, all brilliant artists, all pursuing degrees in art, all of whom dream of working in the comic industry."
Kate Leth is one of those women who wants to work in the comic industry. The artist behind the popular tumblr Kate or Die, soon to be featured in Womanthology and an employee at Strange Adventures, Leth has a valuable perspective on the industry, both as someone trying to make a career within it and as someone who sees the consumers of it every day. Leth's first reaction to the relaunch was one of excitement as she found its intent to be very appealing.
"I heard a lot of resentment from regular customers at my shop, older guys who have been reading since childhood, about having to start over," Leth explained over chat, "For me, it was (and still might be) a place to start without getting overwhelmed. Plus, I've been waiting for Batwoman to start for about a year."
Leth admits that she's only really interested in a few titles at this point, but for her it's a combination of the characters, like Batgirl, and the creative teams, as is the case for her with Batwoman.
Even so, Leth had her mind on the gender equality issues surrounding the relaunch almost from the get go.
"I follow a number of 'women in comics' blogs and news sites, and it was all anyone was talking about. I flipped through the 'New 52' book we got in at the store, and I see less than a handful of women," Leth said, "Everyone praises Gail Simone, and I'm not belittling her in any way, but there are so many more writers and artists out there."
While the boys' club mentality Kyrax2 pointed out in her remarks is almost certainly prohibiting certain female creators from getting involved with a publisher like DC, Leth feels another big reason why women aren't as willing to take a shot at working for a mainstream publisher is a little more universal.
"I don't really see myself working for Marvel or DC except in the case of something like Strange Tales or Girl Comics. I don't draw superheroes other than to poke fun at them, and they don't seem to want any ongoing series that play with the style at all."
For women like Kyrax2 and Leth, an atmosphere of intelligent or clever tweaks of the superhero formula is an asset in comics, whether it's Batman: The Animated Series or Tiny Titans, and the current trend in comics is often skewed more towards overly aggressive and serious portrayals of superheroics. In some ways, Kyrax2 thinks the system is stacked against females because of this, despite the historic presence of women in DC's highest positions, as is the case with DC's current president, Diane Nelson.
"It's often difficult for a woman to work in any male-dominated environment, especially one where the ratios are so skewed, and this certainly causes some women to choose to pursue independent comics rather than attempting to work for DC," Kyrax2 stated, "Also, a woman has to be very, very good, maybe better than her male counterparts, for fans to accept her. If people don't like her work, it's often attributed to the fact that she's a woman, rather than the fact that it's not to a particular person's taste or that the editorial staff made poor choices about the direction the story needed to go."
The fickle nature of fandom of course makes it difficult for some fans to accept change (as the relaunch itself has shown in some ways), but Leth herself thinks the atmosphere of indie comics is more conducive to the work many female creators wish to produce.
"The vast majority of DC comics I see coming out each week don't appeal to me at all. All these Flashpoint crossovers! I tried to read an issue of Deadman, because I loved the covers, but I had no idea who anyone was. How can I want to get involved with something I don't understand?" asked Leth, "I think that's why so many women are drawn to webcomics and independent publishers. We see work coming out that we identify with, that we can get excited about, and we want to do it too."
And therein lies the very real quality that women creators can offer a publisher like DC. While DC has made a big point of arguing that their relaunch is meant to lure in new readers, many commenters have already expressed dismay at the fact that the relaunch heavily involves spectator-era wonders like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, none of whom would exactly be called adventurous or forward thinking by even their most strident fans. Leth perhaps says it best: "All I know is, half the customers at the comic shop are women, but barely any of them are buying things like Flashpoint."
As Kyrax2 made clear, many female comic fans are coming to the medium instead through manga, where style is more fluid and character development is more important. Young artists like Leth have themselves grown up heavily influenced by manga, whether directly or indirectly, and it's telling that the world of Japanese manga has historically been very good to female creators. Kyrax2 and those who are similarly demanding better representation in comics aren't asking for tailor-made "girly" books, like DC has tried and failed with in the past with imprints like Minx, but instead a system that's as receptive to different ideas in the way the Japanese comics industry appears to be. Given the way Kyrax2's statements were received by fans and the media outside of SDCC, it would seem that the comics industry may be forced to make better strides towards that kind of structure.
"I truly never expected everything that happened to receive such a huge response. That it did tells me that there is a huge group of frustrated fans out there, because the vast majority of the responses I've received have been positive," Kyrax2 explained, "After the panels, many people came up to shake my hand or hug me and thank me for asking the questions I did. On the internet I received a similar response on a much larger scale, with person after person saying, 'Thank you for asking the questions that I couldn't ask,' and 'Thank you for speaking for those of us who couldn't be at Comic Con.' Other people do seem more ready to speak up than before - several have told me that they're going to NYCC and are prepared to ask tough questions if they feel it's necessary."
Leth saw the extent of Kyrax2's popularity firsthand.
"The regular female customers at the shop all seem to know about her. She's famous! She's saying something we all feel, and it's brave. I think it all the time. None of us can understand how they can stand up and say they're trying to appeal to new readers and then completely alienate half the population." Leth even went on to say that "I wish we could have all been there to back her up...I hope she knows she's an inspiration to people like me."
Kyrax2 understands how her questions have become so important to some but she didn't intend for the exchange to wind up being so visible. "I did not set out to become a symbol. And I think that I was, perhaps, merely the straw that broke the camel's back. Other people have been asking the same questions as I for a long time, this just happened to be the time that they got heard, both by the internet community, and by DC itself."
But regardless of Kyrax2's expectations, it's clear that the public's reception to her comments has inspired DC to action. Immediately following SDCC, DC issued a press release titled "We Hear You," which promised that more projects involving female creators would be unveiled shortly. While that promise hasn't been met yet (and commentators have already pointed out how odd it is that after that press release, DC will only have one female creator at the New York Comic Con), DC is at least aware that the issue is a major one for fans and won't be going away any time soon.
Whether DC, and the rest of the mainstream comics world, takes serious strides towards making gender equality a reality in the industry, it's becoming clearer that the industry needs all the readers it can get and to alienate such a huge potential audience could be catastrophic. Worse, fans are missing out on a vital perspective, which is what Dan Harmon, notably from the comic book world originally, learned when putting together Community. As Harmon told the AV Club in an interview that Kyrax2 ended her post-SDCC blog post with:
"[Women writers on television] are harder to find. Itís definitely not because women ainít funny, because Iím finding the opposite. Itís because thereís fewer of them. The statistical probability of picking up a shitty script, itís compounded for women. Thereís the same percentage of genius happening in both genders, but thereís less women writing scripts and out there looking for the job. So you dig a little extra-hard, and you end up with a staff that took a few extra meetings and a few extra shitty scripts to read. Now you have a staff that is just as good as the staff you would have had, but happens to be half women. And it seems like the greatest thing in the world, because the world is half women."
Harmon's words are precisely what the mainstream publishers need to heed. Finding that Top Talent by working a little harder to ensure that there's a variety of representation-- be it in gender, racial or ethnic terms-- may be harder but in the end isn't it better? Shouldn't we be striving to more accurately reflect our culture? A variety of perspectives can only improve the quality of our content and without it we'll only suffocate our medium.
The full text of our interview with Kyrax2 is available here while our interview with Kate Leth is available here.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.
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