You could be forgiven for thinking this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, the biggest comic event of the year, was entirely a DC event. Unthinkable just a few months ago, with a year packed full of magnificent Marvel movies, DC completely stole the show with a steady trickle release of news and images from their upcoming September line-wide reboot.
The New 52, as it is now known, sees every character in the DC Universe re-starting their stories at issue #1 in a continuity reshift that packs their entire history into the last five years. But it wasn’t Superman in jeans that everyone was talking about, nor was it even the highly controversial decision to take Barbara Gordon out of her wheelchair to get back in the Batgirl heels; instead the timely topic of Women in Comics was the most talked about issues both at the Con, and in the media coverage.
So what’s the deal? Women have been feeling left out of superhero comics for some time now, in an industry that by its own admittance is geared primarily at the younger end of the male market. Large breasts and an ass in the camera shot has been the standard female portrayal since long before Superman was even a twinkle in Jerry Siegel’s eye: take a look at the pulp magazines of the Thirties to see some scantily clad ladies that give Vampirella a run for her money.
But equally, throughout superhero comics history there have been some great women characters that have appealed to female readers, and some fantastic women creating and producing some of the best comics of the day. From Elasti-Girl to Batwoman, Ramona Fradon to Karen Berger, DC has often been at the forefront of championing women in comic books.
DC’s New 52 had caused consternation amongst female fans online since the announcement of the creating teams: out of 152 credited creators, only three were female. DC stated from the outset that a handful of other women creators had been approached but were busy with other projects. As it stands however, having women make up only 1.9% of your team is not a good look for a publisher seeking greater diversity and new audiences. Seeing Harley Quinn’s new outfit, and Catwoman described as a “dirty chick”, many women saw red.
And that’s the crunch. This massive relaunch is not being undertaken for fun and games; it’s a big gamble by one of the largest publishers in a failing market. Historically, comics have always been a boom and bust industry, but the medium has been in a state of decline for some time now. Conversely, sales of graphic novels (trade collections) have been on the rise in the UK, and a large part of this is down to a growing female readership. In the tricky land of publishing, women readers remain a strong and growing sector: tapping in to this is crucial if sales are to increase.
The stereotypical portrayal of women in superhero comics as hyper-sexualised eye candy is hardly unique to comic books; this is a cultural problem that spans every facet of women’s lives. A lack of diversity too, when it comes to characters of colour, gay characters, disabled characters, and so on, is pretty standard across all our media. But comics have long been champions of change, a quick printing schedule allowing writers to be daring and bold, even as their main audience may initially resist.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that DC deliberately set out to exclude women creators from the New 52, but that the publisher and its creators were so unprepared for questioning over the matter is surprising. Questions about where the women were, from both male and female audience members, were met with growing aggression and weariness. Many women described leaving Comic-Con feeling as if DC saw them as second class readers, and didn’t even want their money! For a publisher seeking to grow their readership and expand diversity, something went badly wrong indeed that weekend.
Fortunately due to the coverage that followed, DC have come forward with a new statement: that DC are actively looking to improve their diversity, that new projects with women creators are now forthcoming, and that they are opening their doors to new talent. Greater diversity on the creative teams is a welcome step, and one that has long been asked for by writers such as Gail Simone and Grant Morrison. As a supporter of the New 52, I’ve been hugely relieved by Jim Lee’s (DC co-publisher) positive comments on the various coverage of the topic, including my own.
The portrayal of women in comics themselves is a trickier problem, and one that requires a slow and steady touch: DC must work towards making its comics more accessible to newcomers, while retaining the original audience who are often somewhat set in their ways. Some of the best female characters of course have been the result of male writers (step forward Greg Rucka and Warren Ellis) but diversity does breed diversity, and having more varied experiences on the creative team should trickle through to the pages, and encourage more new talent to step up to the superhero table.
Now all that remains is for female comic fans to support these upcoming projects to prove to DC that comic readers will put their money where their mouth is. I will be promoting the hell out of Batwoman #1, and picking up Batgirl and Wonder Woman along with my usual choices (Action Comics, Animal Man, and most of Gotham). But despite Catwoman being my favourite character in the DCU, I’ll sadly be giving that one a miss.