Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Yet Another "What Women Want" Post

Just a quick anecdote I've been meaning to share:

I currently work for a media company for women run by mostly women. Our content is targeted towards women: celebrities, fashion, health, style, relationships, parenting, etc.

One day when I was attending an editorial meeting, somebody mentioned to everyone that I am involved with the comic book industry. This bit of information sparked a great deal of interest from the mostly female staff. They thought it was cool, thought comic books were cool, even enthusiastically mentioned Elektra. We got into a brief discussion regarding comics about female characters, and comics for women. The long and short of it is, they were interested in action and female characters who could kick butt. The majority of the women were interns in their early 20s. With the exception of one woman who collected comics like "Y The Last Man," most were not what one would consider "fangirls" or comic book collectors. They just responded very positively to the idea of proactive female superheroes.

This experience really confirmed to me that it is crucial in a superhero comic book for women that there be action, as much action as in an action movie or mainstream superhero comic. I do not think we should shy away from these elements in a comic targeted for women because we worry that they are "ugly" or brutal in some way. If anything, I think having ass-kicking superheroines might be cathartic.

At the same time, I believe strongly that care should be taken in these comics to address characterization and relationships. That is, in my opinion, the crucial balance that must be struck in a superhero comic that can appeal to women. And that, when we step back and look at everything as a whole, might be the crucial balance that must be struck for any comic with a mass-appeal, regardless of gender.

So anyway, that's just the results of a highly unscientific spur-of-the-moment focus group thingie regarding women and comics.

I don't think there is any reason superheroines like Elektra, Batgirl, Supergirl, Ms. Marvel, etc should not be iconic heroes that all women, regardless of "fan" status, recognize and enjoy. And you know, maybe movies & TV are going to play a large part in all this to get these women more familiar with the characters (as I'm sure, despite its poor box-office showing, the Elektra movie certainly did). But whatever the case, I really think this can be done.

And certainly, where the females would purchase/read these stories is another big factor. You would get more female readers with trades/webcomics than you would with monthly comics, in my opinion. And as unsuccessful as the Catwoman & Elektra movies were, they probably went a long way in introducing mainstream superheroines to females. These are all things to think about and consider, I guess.

I'm not writing this as an idealistic, pie-in-the-sky vision of a world; the way I think things "should" be. I'm writing this from the viewpoint of what actually might work sales-wise, what makes sense, solid ideas from which to create product. I realize that sounds rather materialistic, but in terms of making these changes in the industry, the business side has to be taken into account. It can't be we do this comic solely because "wouldn't it be nice to have another female superhero." Because we can do that, certainly, but it won't last ten issues. As much as we do these things for the "right" reasons, we have to also do them because they hold water business-wise.

How do we sell comic book product to the twenty-something women in that boardroom? How do we take their enthusiasm at the mere mention of "comics" and expand on it? If they respond positively to a character like Elektra, where do we take that? What is the next step?


  1. If the books are printed, you have to have distrubtion. And you have put them in places that women will shop.

    This puts everything back on either B&N or the local comic shop, which the latter runs into the traditional problems and B&N doesn't carry a backstock or anything you would really need to catch up if we're encouraging single issue sales.

    I'm lucky enough to live in a town with many comic shops to choose from that are various ranges of what I would consider woman-friendly. However, not everyone is so lucky.

  2. While it is rooted in the romance genre, Julie Kenner's "Aphrodite" novels are an interesting use of superhero themes worked into a romance novel.

    Perhaps the easiest strategy is to have a prose writer write a limited series based on established characters, but outside of normal continuity.

    Hmmm... could a Marvel version of Shojo Beat, featuring comics and articles, sold either online or on newsstands, work?

    Dan Slott's She-Hulk seemed to be a good example of mixing the superhero and the everyday in an entertaining manner. (She even got married!)

    Marvel is trying (see the new Models, Inc. title). Pride and Prejudice is due out soon in hardcover (love the cover to #1!)

    And Iron Man 2 will have the Black Widow.

    And then there are the sexy Halloween costumes...

  3. I think one of the ways is to make an effort to insert comics into what 20-something's women may already be reading. A regular "page-o-comics" feature in leading magazines for that demographic could be the gateway. Original stories that can be collected into one or more volumes. And sold at Borders. Do not try to get women who are not used to "fanboy culture" into a comic shop.

    Could we see a regular strip in Cosmopolitan, People, Soap Opera Digest by one of the big 4? Something that relates to each magazine's vibe? Something that would give the reader an option to order it or find it on newstands?

    I also think that these comics need to be done by women creators. It's not that a man can't write the same stuff in most cases; it addresses the perception of authenticity.

  4. I'm a female and I really love comic-book movies. I also really love graphic novels. I loathe comic books. Here's the 2 main reasons why:

    1. The disappointment and frustration of paying good money to be suckered into a long term plotline, often one I haven't read the backstory for. If I go to a comic store and pay $4 or so for a 20 page comic book, find that 8 pages are taken up by advertisements, and then that the story arc ends on a cliffhanger designed to get me to buy the next issue, then I will never buy it again. And I'll be pissed. And I'll loudly complain to my friends about why I hate about comic books and how this particular one is an example. Consequently, I've only bought a half dozen comics in my life. My husband buys them sometimes and sometimes I read them. The Boys is the ONLY comic I've ever read that actually ends their individual comics with a plot resolution. I'm on number thirty something and I like it well enough that if my husband wasn't buying it, I'd buy it myself. If it's a good series, I'll make a mental note to myself to buy the graphic novel or collected whatsit when it comes out. I have 10 or 12 graphic novel/collecteds around here and I like them quite a bit.

    2. Tits and ass. I don't care to read a comic book that makes me feel like I have to insist to people "No, I read Playboy for the articles, really!!" If the comic looks like a wanker-zine, I'm not touching it. (Which is odd, considering how graphic and downright gross The Boys is on occasion. But I don't think that series is designed to titillate, or at least I don't get that vibe.)

    So what do I want in a comic (in order of decreasing importance):

    A. A good story. (which means the individual selling unit of the story must be self-contained, because an incomplete story is not a good story)

    B. A feeling of respectability.

    C. Decent art always helps, but really, if the story is good enough I'll tolerate crappy art. After all, I read plenty of stories with no art at all and that's cool.

    D. Must be cheaper per my unit of reading time than buying paperback books or cruising the public library. It seems that most comics are around $4 now and most paperbacks are around $8 (getting one from the library takes an equivalent amount of effort to locate, order, pick up and drop off - and then I don't still have the book to lend to friends or reread). I'll get 15-20 minutes reading out of a comic book and 2-4 hours out of a paperback. Which means it has to be a damn good story to overcome this, given the current price ratio.

    E. A short time between updates/new issues, if applicable.

  5. To me, one of the biggest things seems to be finding a way around the direct market. Because the direct market is directed to a very specific very male audience, and it seems that every time a comic directed at a different audience moves through the DM it either dies on the vine, or starts to morph into a more typical DM book.

    The Emma Frost book from is years ago is a good example. That was a book written, really, for a young female audience, starring a sixteen year old Emma Frost. But seeing as it runs through the direct market, the books were solicited, marketed, and sold with Greg Horn softcore covers of a fully grown Emma that practically garauntees that no young girl will ever pick up the book.

    Didn't Peter David talk about how they tried to keep the art on his Supergirl series non-sexualized... but eventually sales demanded that they bend to the direct market audience and sex up the art. Enter short skirts and panty shots.

    And that's not even addressing the fact that very few of the female twentysomething audience is ever going to set foot in a comic shop period. So even if you manage to make a "pure" book getting it in front of your target audience is impossible for the direct market.

    Ultimately I think you're right, I think the web or digital is the way to go. Half my female friends follow some sort of web comic religiously. Granted, no one has really figured out how to monetize web comics on a large enough scale for the big two to try a Batgirl or Ms. Marvel web comic... but we now what happens when they're launched in the Direct Market. Expecting a different result is, as they say, insanity.

    Of course, imagine if Comics do finally make the jump to digital distribution. There's a comic book section on your Itunes store, complete with many different genres, styles, and hey, maybe a section spotlighting girl super-heroes that kick ass. maybe even digital trades. The first twelve issues of Ms. Marvel for $7.99. Or whatever.

    But either way... you're not getting any of those books to survive the current direct market climate.

  6. To me, what superhero comics do best is take an internal conflict and make it external. Batman feels conflicted between his desire for justice and his desire for revenge, so he fights Two-Face. Superman feels the cold hand of a dead culture on his conscience, so he fights General Zod. A teenager confronts the choice between conforming to a group that makes him feel like an outsider and rebelling, so he (or she) reads "X-Men".

    These are actually stories that are well served by more character-driven approaches. Too often, the stories comics tell are overly plot-driven. The relentless pace of plot development building plot development is pretty the hallmark of modern comics. Character-driven stories are dismissed as "soap opera".

    However, when Frank Miller brought the metaphor at the center of the Batman/Two-Face dynamic closer to the surface in "Dark Knight Returns", he did through character-driven story-telling. We get inside the head of Bruce Wayne a little bit and learn about his as a person. No one is going to mistake "Dark Knight Returns" for a "soap opera" story, but that focus upon character is good example of what should be at the center of any title that is targeted at bringing more women into comics.

  7. Chauncey7:17 PM

    Make a sequel?

    The ideal scene is to take away any significance to the degree that you can create a Superheroine without taking away the appeal.

    Hollywood sees this as backwards thinking though. They think if you throw away the disdain of the whole concept, the "drama", you're not appealing to the women of the audience.

    More in the way of Elektra would be sublime. This is one of the few Superheroines that has actually an impressive mark on her.

    When we get to the point where we want to see more drama from Superheroines instead of kickass action scenes because the Superheroes got plenty of emotional time on air, then it's probably not that bad anymore.

  8. Manuel Vargas10:26 PM

    Long time lurker here.

    Apropos of nothing on this post, this evening I happened to pick up off the floor a copy of Marvel Age, issue 59 (Feb '88) (my kids like looking at the pictures of old comic books) and was pleasantly startled to see on the last page that one Valerie D'Orazio of Brooklyn NY was listed on the "Marvel Age Pen Pals Club." The entry also notes her favorite comics were X-Factor, GI Joe, and Spider-Man. No Cloak and Dagger listed, alas.

    Just thought you might get a kick out of a reader coming across that.


  9. If a comic book looks pornographic I'm not touching it.


    I'm the same and male.

    Protective female heroes who kick ass. Gee Joss Whedon knew it way back then.

    Perhaps this is the great character that you have in you to create or re-make. Male heroes get re-tooled and reset why not one of the past or current heroines. I think this is a possible for you. Have a think about who you'd like to create and re-make and post it.

  10. Re: the comment that "it is crucial in a superhero comic book for women that there be action."

    I assume you made this point because you are trying to counter the stereotype that action stuff is for guys.

    In this case, you might find a recent Entertainment Weekly piece on horror movies interesting/relevant. Apparently the majority of folks watching these films are, in fact, not at all male. Even the audience for "torture porn" stuff appears to be slightly more female than male.

    Which I think strongly supports your more general point that recognizing the actual entertainment needs of women--rather than their perceived/stereotyped needs--is not just about being good people, it's simply good business.

    (For what its worth, I generally could care less about "good business", but when it goes hand in hand with behaving in a decently human way then why the heck not, eh?)

  11. Anonymous4:10 AM

    I don't think the next step is possible as long as comic book fans continue to use gender-based insults as their Go-To on the internet.

  12. A good story and art and not looking like a 'My First Softcore' mag are important, but it helps to remember that the sorts of women who are looking for superhero comics will probably be turned off to anything which smacks of 'feminising': deliberate design to look feminine.

    A friend and I attended a game developers' conference a couple years back, and one company revealed plans for a women's gaming magazine. It was cutesy. It was pastel. The only thing it was missing was Fabio on the cover. It was the sort of thing my friend and I -- both self-respecting women who have been hardcore gamers most of our lives -- would have been mortified to be seen reading. Their target audience thought it was a lousy concept.

    The shoujo manga industry may be monopolising on the teenage girls market, but filling a superhero comic with bouncy floating hearts and flowers isn't going to move it off the shelves.

  13. I watch this in my classes with my 7tyh and 8th graders, and it's much the same thing. The girls want action AND character relationships. They are all about the X-Men and Birds of Prey and even Power Girl (interestingly, they like her much more than Supergirl.) But they like those characters largely because of the MOVIES AND TV SHOWS. X2 and Spider-Man 2, in particular, are the ones that sent my 8th grade girls into orbit, and they love the Birds of Prey TV show when I bring it in. (I think I may be the only guy in America to have bought that DVD set to use in a classroom.)

    I don't know if I have a good answer to your question because packaging is a huge part of it. I know these kids aren't going to buy 2.99 32-page booklets. That's just not going to happen. But they WOULD buy a reasonably-priced digest package at a bookstore or a Target. It doesn't have to look like manga, although that would help -- but it has to have a comparable bulk, a similar bang for the buck. Along those same lines, an easy way to cut costs here would be for publishers to really look at doing books in black-and-white. Fastest way to cut production costs in half, or even further, is to just not print in full color. And kids today are largely habituated to seeing comics in black-and-white. WE FANS are the people that insist on color. I don't think the general populace cares that much... never have, really. Even in the days when PEANUTS and GARFIELD paperback collections ruled newsstands and bookstores, they rarely bothered with color, not even when reprinting color Sunday strips. Those books were always black-and-white as well.

  14. The current art direction of Ms. Marvel, drawn by the much maligned Sana Takeda, brings a really interesting skew to the book. In the latest issue we have the prototypical boy-superhero story - two superhero beat the shit out of each other. The subtext, that one has usurped the others identity, is quite archetypal, but also speaks to that successful-women hive-vagina thing. anyway, the art gives it this shojo manga feel, which underlines how quietly feminine a battle this is - you have upstanding, long suffering and overlooked Carol Danvers beating on Karla Sofen, always made into 'the bitch' because she does the same kind of thing a lot of male heroes do without cringing like a fragile flower savagely fighting over the right to be Marvel's female lead. This a comic book about a fight, with two characters who are both pretty distant from romance novel heroines, but I think it might be the exact alchemy Marvel needs to push this book.

  15. I will never understand the attitude of "Wonder Woman sucks as a character." I mean, by that same logic, so does Superman...but that's not so. Overpowered, maybe, but there's a way to write them.

    A Wonder Woman or Batgirl or Catwoman or Elektra movie should be a slam dunk. Write a good story and people will show up. Put in action and women will show up...these movies often fail because they try way too hard to be "girly," setting Catwoman in a cosmetic firm, etc...because girls love makeup! Ugh.

  16. Regardless of gender, it's disheartening how often the sweet spot of balance between characters and action is found (Admittedly, it is that much more gratifying when it appears.) Keith Giffen does that well. Chuck Dixon. Alan Grant. J.M. Dematteis. You can tell I read a lot of 80's/90's DC. But I think it's true. I don't care as much about Batman in the dark knight with his epic losses and more interested in him having trouble convincing Vicki Vale that he's not a total flake in Detective 613. The powers that be seem more interested in twists than story telling. I love twists as much as the next guy, but storytelling, characters you actually give a crap about, that's where success lies.

  17. • Non-sexualized art. One of the things I liked about George Perez's Wonder Woman is that she stood up straight and had an anatomically possible figure. I would have liked it even better if she had modified her outfit to fit into our world better. Maybe top and loose pants, with Major Diana Trevor's flight jacket over it? Or a variety of outfits, depending on what she happens to be wearing that day?

    • Stories with a beginning, middle and end, unlike the endlessness of regular serials. So that means miniseries and graphic novels. With some sort of serious character growth that is permanent (no retcons or retraumatizations). When I was younger, I wanted my heroes to role model an alternative to being victims or bullies. As I got older, I also wanted them to model the healing process, moving from someone struggling with violence/violentization, to someone who could go on to have a real life and enact change through non-violent means - something they never did. The main reason I gave up on comics was bad things kept happening to people I liked. Enough was enough.

    Oh, and the graphic novels I've seen in the library have been terrible, because they've just been excerpts from the series, rather than a complete story line. I mean real graphic novels.

    • Finally, a responsible take on violence, instead of glorifying it or desensitizing people to it; a real good look at how violence actually affects people in real life.

    I think it's worth buying a graphic novel rather than a regular novel if the art is good. It's like the difference between a novel and a movie - the visual element can add a lot to the story. But people aren't going to buy them if they're sleazy or if they glorify violence too much. It needs to be more serious than that.

  18. How about a daytime super hero soap opera ?
    Wonder Woman wouldn't work - too many special effects.
    Catwoman could work, tho.

  19. Anonymous10:33 AM

    Anyone ever heard of Purple Moon?

    It was a software company started in the late 90's to create video games for girls. The founder, Brenda Laurel, went into schools and interviewed little girls. She did a TED talk about it.

    The result was a video game that was immediately tagged as an attempt at "feminising". The games were just "choose your own adventure" novels with social interactions. Weirdly, one of the criticisms I heard targeted at them at the time was "Why are they making games just for girls? I mean, they don't have any games made just for boys!"

    I always think about this when I think about trying to hit girls.

    Listening to her TED Talk, you can hear the heartbreak in Ms. Laurel's voice. It's kind of sad.

  20. greyman24: "trying to hit girls" What? The rest of what you said was really cool. Did you leave out a word there or are you using some slang (like "I'd hit that" in reference to interest in having sex with a girl, not to physically hitting her)?

    But the real reason I'm posting is to continue/respond to something Anemone said, about character growth. I would say that I am also interested in an evolving cast of characters, where characters have their arc, grow and then retire so we can move on to a new character and their struggles.

    For example, the "discovering I have super powers" thing hardly ever gets old. Most of the comic book movies are connected to that. There's no fun in showing the same character discover he has powers over and over again (unless they're new powers, like Clark Kent in Smallville in the early seasons).

    The comic book characters I've talked to my comic-reading friends about are always the same characters. Doing basically the same things. Over and over. It's a killjoy. I'd rather read about someone new, doing something new. Then when they've grown, developed, matured and reconciled themselves and their power with their place in the world, as a reader I'd like to move on. Why must comics follow the same character for 50 years? It introduces all these crazy timeline/retcon issues and makes the character seriously lame because he/she never grows.

    New characters can be in the same universe or not, I don't care, though it would be cool to have the occasional nod to a previous character, but you have to have enough distance for there to be a good reason why 'powerful, old character A' doesn't swoop in and fix the problems of 'newbie, current character B'.

    Anyway, that was what I wanted to say. Character growth is great, and with character growth should come retirement and moving on to new characters. Mainstream comics is loathe to move on and thus they're stuck in the past.

    My husband also reads Fables and the spinoffs, and Anita Blake. We both like Heroes a lot and Dr. Horrible (one-shot that it was). I don't know if DC or Marvel has any tie-in with these, but what I'm pointing out is that as I think about it, our comic-reading in the household has moved beyond the boring, non-growing stock superheroes. I think if the comic industry wanted to snare more readers, they need to embrace more of these different universes rather than pretending there's only DC, Marvel and "fringe" stuff.

  21. Hell I'm a male and I want characterization and relationships too.

    This elevates characters from one-dimensional cliches to more fully fleshed-out people. And I love the juxtaposition of women serving in what is ordinarily depicted as a predominantly male gender role, exploring how they handle issues differently from their male counterparts.

    Having good stories overall is key.

  22. How about just trying to do good comics? And then telling them about it.

  23. I suspect that adult women readers want what ALL non 14-year old boys want: characters that develop over time, that have complex character arcs, that change.

    The problem is that the superhero genre really can't deliver that. It's eternally stuck, in some ways largely by market forces, returning to iconic the status quo within what amounts to, at most, a handful of issues of interesting experimentation. And once you're over a certain age, that just gets exhausting after awhile, regardless of gender.

    Comics can be good. But I have no illusion at all that when I indulge in superhero comics, that I'm indulging in a return to the goofy nostalgic pleasures of being a 14 year old boy. If people don't have that immaturity point to return to, that touchstone, then I don't blame them for finding current comic superheroics severely lacking. My adult self does too.

  24. Anonymous10:29 PM

    Greyman owned himself there I think.