Monday, April 07, 2008

Female Superhero Comic Book Readers Desire "Good Storylines"

When I asked a group of female mainstream comic book readers attending a Friends of Lulu panel at I-Con this weekend what was the #1 thing they looked for in their comics, it was "storyline" that kept coming up. This was pretty much the response I got when I asked women the same question at San Diego Comic Con last year. Some women at the I-Con panel also expressed that they cared more about storyline than the art.

Now, is the caring about storyline a gender-specific thing? What comic book reader would admit to not considering storyline important? Or are specific elements of what might fall under the term "storyline" -- relationships between characters, character growth, etc -- really at issue here?

Speaking for myself, since I was a teen I was always interested in comics that had the best character development in them. I cared less about the art than about the characters. My favorite comics were the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans and the Claremont X-Men. I cared most about the relationships between these characters.

So, would it be fair to say I was attracted to the (for lack if a better term) "soap-operatic" elements of a comic? Yes. I liked some action too, but it was not my main concern.

For example, I was a fan of the 1980s GI Joe cartoon as a kid. I wasn't a fan because I was interested in explosions or military vehicles. I was a fan because the show's writers did a particularly great job with the characterization and inter-personal relationships of the characters. Similarly, I didn't really care about the alien races and galactic intrigue of the original Star Trek. I faithfully tuned in to the reruns because I thought Spock was a great character, and the friendships he had with Kirk and McCoy were complex and interesting.

Conversely, I had little-to-no interest in shows like The A-Team and Knight Rider. They, like GI Joe and Star Trek, were action programs. But, A-Team & Knight Rider seemed empty character-wise (though of course who doesn't like Howlin' Mad Murdock?).

Move on to the late 80s/early 90s, and bombastic comics like McFarlane's Spider-man and Liefeld's X-Force did nothing for me. All action, very little characterization. And yet, those books were incredibly popular -- especially with males.

As I got older, I could appreciate the occasional "slugfest" in a comic book -- case in point, "World War Hulk." But still -- I needed the drama, the relationships, the characterization.

The comics the women in the panel audience -- with an age range from late teens to middle age -- cited as their faves were stuff like The Runaways, Ultimate X-Men, and the Heroes webcomics. In contrast, they expressed little-to-no interest in the big summer comic crossover "events."

Are these events engaging them enough in the "storyline" department? Or is it that the marketing behind these events stress the "massiveness" of the story, while at the same time ignoring aspects of relationships and drama in these books that would appeal to a female audience?

Should mainstream superhero comics be marketed differently to females? Could the same comic -- Final Crisis, Secret Invasion -- appeal to both men and women, but have to be marketed differently to both?

One thing from all of my impromptu polls of female comic readers indicate is that if you are going to market with women in mind -- don't be obvious about it. Don't call your books "female friendly." It is regarded as patronizing. And, as one young woman put it in San Diego last year, "it means the comic is going to be weak."

And yet, though women do not like being specifically marketed to -- is there still a "type" of superhero comic they like more?

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that in regards to fantasy/sci-fi literature of all stripes, "Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus." I know female fans that value the visceral thrill of a good horror movie, the excitement of a well-done martial arts scene, the labyrinthine plots of a Tolkien novel, and the bone-crunching ass-kicking performed by a female vampire hunter or barbarian queen.

But is there a preference among female readers for the character and relationship aspects of certain books as opposed to "slugfests" and spectacular scenes of destruction? Or is this preference for more character-driven storylines simply a universal for both genders -- about enjoying well-written comics as opposed to sensationalism? Or maybe there is a gender difference on what aspects of a comic each will be attracted to the most. I'm still trying to figure this all out, and without a formal marketing research poll, I can only produce anecdotes.

But, I will say that I think the major comic companies could do more to market certain titles that I think would appeal to female fans. Case in point: Wonder Woman. I don't think iconic pin-up shots of WW is really going to convince women that this is a book they would enjoy. That seems to be advertising targeting more men than women. And Nightwing was a book that was very popular among women; and yet, I don't see an effort to capitalize on that and drive more female readers back to the title.

What do you think?


  1. I was always under the impression these kinds of preferences cut across gender, kind of like, say, the differences between indie film fans and the fans of the multiplex movies.

    And then you've got cases like the Justice League International of the '80s, which was one big, mostly comedic, study in group dynamics, yet seemed to sustain a male following.

  2. Oh, a question regarding Nightwing: to what would you attribute his series' popularity among female readers?

  3. As a comic reader, I too enjoy good character development and characterizations. Don't get me wrong; a nice slug-fest is great too, but both work best when balanced with each other.

    Comics have, for the most part, ignored their female fanbase. Sure, there were recent attempts such as Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (which was chock full of what women love in comics AND written by a man, amazingly) but why should that be it? Why isn't Wonder Woman a book geared towards women instead of soft-core bondage porn for guys? The stories they could tell with her, she could be the ultimate 21st century symbol of empowerment. A woman unto herself that doesn't need to obssess about society's standards or when her next date is going to be, who can hold her own with the big boys and at times even surpass them. (Although those kinda messages may be better recieved if she wasn't running around in a one-piece bikini).

    I think as far as comics make the leaps forward in both concepts and content as time moves on, the exclusive boys club mentality will be the last thing to go.

  4. Oh, hell no they're not alone. I sometimes don't notice the art at all if I'm really into the story. Take the finale of the "Titans Around the World" arc of Teen Titans - I barely noticed a lot of the egregious errors in art because I was just so engaged with the story. I wouldn't have noticed until someone actually bothered to point it out to me.

  5. as a gay guy its kind of interesting.

    i agree i like the soap opera style, but i also like the big bang stuff.

    that's why i liked bendis's daredevil so much. it had great character depth, but he also beat the fuck out of people.

    so im with you, it needs good character depth, good storylines, but i also like the crazy action as well.

  6. "Oh, a question regarding Nightwing: to what would you attribute his series' popularity among female readers?"

    I receive a lot of feedback regarding his relationship with Barbara Gordon, which a number of female fans (and probably male ones too) are very touched by. And so he combines heroism with sensuality with sensitivity, which is a golden combination.

    And I think that's a book that is a prime candidate to be heavily marketed to both male and female readers. Robin is the same way, as is a number of the Bat-titles. These are titles that can please readers across the board regardless of gender, like Buffy The Vampire Slayer does.

  7. Anonymous2:26 PM

    For me it's been a large part about storylines and interpersonal dynamics. I generally see art as secondary as long as it is at least decent quality and often prefer heavily stylished or "mangaish" type art.

  8. I am cutting back on the comics I read, and I find myself cutting Batman, but keeping Robin and Nightwing. Great, thought-provoking post.

  9. Quick question; what is the name of the comic that the panel at the top is taken from?

  10. Well, the thing is, when asked, anyone is going to say they want a good story first. It's like saying looks don't matter or you'd return a wallet that you found. People will throw their money at what they want which is an entirely different thing from people throwing their money at something they feel they should. I wonder how McDonald's is doing with the apple slices.

    Personally, I think the perfect way to market something is to 1) Take something smart and present it as something "sexy" (Not literally, but in a "you can meme this" kind of way) or take something kind of plain and treaded ground, and present it as something totally novel.

  11. Both Nightwing and Wonder Woman are pretty decent comic books at the moment in the hands of Tomasi/Simone.

  12. Okay, I was a comic retailer near Houston for eight years. Six of those years were spent working with a female co-owner in a gender friendly environment with a respectable representation of woman readers.*

    Now, obviously the majority were manga followers. This was the mid-90's-to-early-00's, after all. Of those remaining, the majority fell into two camps of roughly equal proportions: the fantacists who dug sexually empowered and well drawn heroines like Catwoman, Tarot, Witchblade, and the Chaos! fatales; and the romantics who enjoyed the interpersonal relationships of lines like the X-titles and Batman family. There was some crossover with regards to Vertigo, as well.

    By my reckoning, that would make them proportionately in line with male fandom. You've got the guys who like the escapism of rough & tumble sorts like Wolverine or absolute power fantasies like Superman. You've also got the continuity geeks more interested in the Titans, Avengers, and so on.

    Typically, I'd say women are less interested in continuity than consistency, and therefore more likely to stray from a given line to pursue new books of interest. Otherwise, women and men aren't that much different in their reading habits. There's much more of a Mars/Venus/relationship between American and Japanese readers, as the otaku are a whole different breed of animal, regardless of gender.

    *Admittedly, still likely less than 10%, but this was a comic shop, after all.

  13. If all that is gender-dependent, then I must be a woman. Which is totally okay by me. Especially if it means I like good comics!

  14. I'm going to go out on a limb and say "yes," maybe. I'm into comics almost entirely for the storylines/characterization, and I pay far less attention to the art--not that I don't appreciate it, and it may be my personality rather than my gender giving me the preference. But there could be something to the characterization theory, and I certainly see/hear fanboys discuss the minutiae of comics art more than girls.

    Also, I have that exact panel of Molly at the top of my blog, so maybe that says something (?).

  15. Codex: It's Runaways--the comic that singlehandedly got me into comics. As a girl. I am totally textbook.

  16. I so agree with Val on the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans run. It remains one of my favorite runs in comics. My favorite issue was "WHO IS DONNA TROY?" where Robin out-Batmans Batman in detective work... all as a favor to Wonder Girl. Brilliant story.

  17. Sleestak had posted some pages from a comic aimed at girls and young women from back in the day.

    Sleestak's post

    Just wanted to compare and contrast what girls of yesteryear might have wanted versus women of today.

    Although I'm seeing a lack of women chiming in here...

  18. I definitely think it's more of an individual personality thing. I barely pay attention to the art most the time, especially when I don't care for the artist. For instance, I really didn't care for the art in Generation X, but I loved the story and character development. I also hate John Romita Jr's art, but really enjoyed WWH and his run on Thor because the plot was intriguing. That said, I also go for the big crossovers, but I think the alienation effect those have on the female crowd has more to do with the female reaction to comics in general. If you feel that the company as a whole doesn't really care to have you as a reader, then why would you want to read a book that represents that entire organization? You're more likely to stick to the few books that slip through the cracks.

  19. Anonymous3:12 PM

    Call me a woman, but I'm right there with you. I think people with brains want good story lines, regardless of gender.

    There are plenty of female equivalents to the guys' brainless action movies and testosterone-driven comics books: Bratz dolls, crappy chick flicks, Meredith Baxter-Bierney and her string of abusive husbands on The Lifetime movie of the week.

    Like summer blockbusters, comic books are a medium still driven by the whims of 12-year-old boys. The rest of us are just along for the ride -- eking out an existence in the margins.

  20. I'd agree with some of what hipnerd said. Lots of the people that're on the internet, and particularly the people you're going to get a response from considering the nature of your blog, are going to be more "cerebral" types who want comics to be more like literature than people who'll like simpler tales of action and (totally not gay!) manly men doing (totally not gay!) manly things with other (totally not gay!) manly men.

    But they're also, like hipnerd, the type unwilling to accept any blame for the state of comics. The "good" books are always the ones getting axed because no one's buying them, in spite of being everything the "intelligent" fan could want.