Comics / Opinion

Dear Comics: How To Cultivate a Female Fandom

As Eric Stephenson of Image Comics mentioned recently, women may be one of the fastest growing demographics in comics. We buy comics, we sell comics, we talk about comics, and we throw huge parties for comics that we are particularly fond of.With the recent commercial and internet (fan) success of titles such as Red Sonja, Captain Marvel, and  Ms. Marvel I imagine that the female demographic is looking mighty tasty to many comics publishers right now. So, let’s look at a few things that have fueled the success of those titles (and others) as a guide for how to write/draw/promote women properly in comics.

Get a Lady or someone that is Pro-Lady to write your title

Miss Fury bathtubWhen Miss Fury rebooted in the past two years, Dynamite Entertainment tapped Rob Williams to write the iconic character, and Jack Herbert to draw her. If you take a quick look at Rob Williams wiki, you’ll notice that prior to Miss Fury, he had no lady-led titles in his repertoire. Jack Herbert, on the other hand, does have experience drawing women – unfortunately it’s not the kind of style I usually like to see my ladies drawn in. Let’s just say he’s really good at drawing bare midriffs and unnaturally perky breasts.

The combination of Williams and Herbert together made Miss Fury an action filled book that often appeared to purposefully try to get its titular characters in revealing positions. Is that necessarily bad? No. It was clear at the time that Dynamite was not marketing this to women, as their target demographic appears to be older men with memories of the public domain heroes that Dynamite publishes.

When Dynamite wanted to broaden its audience, they hired Gail Simone (noted fairy grandmother of women in comics) to re-launch the scantily clad heroine, which she did with aplomb. By hiring Gail Simone and giving her leave to hire a zillion (a technical term) amazing female cover artists for each issue, Dynamite managed to snag some female interest. The result? Increased sales.

Red Sonja #1 - Fiona Staples Variant

Red Sonja #1 – Fiona Staples Variant

If you compare Red Sonja sales to Miss Fury sales, you’ll notice a marked difference. In February, 2014 Red Sonja sales were estimated to be ranked at #149 of total single issues that debuted that month. Looking at March, 2014 sales, Miss Fury only ranks #291. Some of the difference in sales rank can be chalked up to hiring a well-known (and loved) author for Red Sonja, I would argue that some of the difference is attributable to the female demographic that Simone and Dynamite deliberately targeted with Red Sonja.

Does it have to be a female writer for a comic to succeed with female fans? Absolutely not. Writers such as Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker have been writing fascinating women for years – something we all appreciate. The comic doesn’t even necessarily have to have a female lead. Al Erwig added in a Loki shower-scene in Loki: Agent of Asgard #1 that was a big hit with the ladies – and well, everyone else who wants to see Loki naked.

The key with this piece of advice is that if you want to gain more female fans, you need to hire writers and artists that are female-friendly. You’re not necessarily guaranteed more female fans by hiring female-friendly staff alone, but it will go a long way towards not-alienating a female audience right off the bat.

Imagine Tumblr’s Reaction

This is not a joke – I swear! Tumblr has been labeled as the place where younglings, queers, ladies, and those darn social justice people hang out. You know what? It is and that is awesome. There are many comic professionals who use Tumblr to interact with their fans, and many more fans that use Tumblr to share virtual love for their fandom objects. If you’re attempting to diversify your fandom – you need the Tumblr support.

The recent Young Avengers run by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie is a prime example of this – as Tom Ewing points out in his article “All Our Friends: The Recent Tumblrwave.” Ewing explains that the Young Avengers specifically, and comic fandom in general is a perfect fit for Tumblr, which offers a wider demographic and active fanculture.

 “A wider demographic means wider tastes, a thriving fan culture means an appreciation of character, and ultra-fast circulation of images means that comics fandom in particular is a perfect fit.” – Tom Ewing

Writer: Gail Simone Artist: Walter Geovani

Writer: Gail Simone Artist: Walter Geovani

I hadn’t even gotten a chance to read Red Sonja #8 before I found the issue’s punchline on Tumblr (pictured left). I had actually been on the fence about purchasing this issue previously, but Tumblr’s rabid fervor (and Simone’s fantastic line) convinced me this issue was worthy of my money in under 20 seconds.

So, take a moment to ask yourself: will Tumblr like this comic? Does it have easily quotable images? Does it have two men kissing? Does it have two women kissing? Are the characters three dimensional? Is there snappy dialogue? Is it pro-women, pro-lgbtqa, pro-people of colour? Does the comic hold up to feminist analysis? Are there panels that people will re-blog ad nauseum?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then your comic will most likely be a hit on Tumblr and with a larger demographic of women and social justice people. If the answers to those questions is no, then your comic may be re-blogged ad nauseum on Tumblr, but it will mostly be by those social justice people slamming it.

Tumblr is an excellent litmus test to see how a comic will do with a non-cis-straight-white-male audience, and one that you should take advantage of if you’re attempting to cultivate  new demographics for a particular title (or just in general).

Create Female Characters that are easy to cosplay

So this statement is a bit less obvious than the previous two. When I say that you should create easily cosplayable characters, what I’m really saying is to create non-stereotypical characters in terms of body shape and outfit. I’m assuming everyone and their dog has heard of the success of Ms. Marvel – the comic that introduced Kamala Khan, a young muslim-American girl, as the new Ms. Marvel. During her February, 2014 release Ms. Marvel catapulted to the #1 seller in Marvel’s digital sales.

MsMarvelCostumeShe’s non-stereotypical for several reasons, clearly first of all she’s non white – crazy! Second of all, her costume manages to cover up her body without being skin-tight. The first time I saw her costume, I knew two things. 1) I will love Kamala Khan (and her creator, G. Willow Wilson) forever. 2) I am going to dress up as Ms. Marvel the next time I cosplay.

Why am I willing to cosplay as Ms. Marvel rather than other of my favorite characters? I don’t have to wear a leotard.  

I”m not going to have the “but sexy women in comics is just a thing” argument right now – rather I’m going suggest that adding variety to that theme is a worthwhile goal that women appreciate.

There are enough latex ladies in comics to last a lifetime. It’s been done, and done well in some cases, but it’s time to try something new. Show us something that hasn’t been done before. Whether that something new ends up being is a baggy costume, a well-written plus-sized hero, or a group of women escaping a penal colony in space - people are going to notice, and if it’s done right, they’re going to love it.

Another example of this is Lumberjanes, a comic that debuted today from Boom! Studios. Take a look at the ladies this comic is centered on. Don’t get too close though, at least half of them will bite.

Lumberjanes01

I’m cosplaying this too. Just need to find a denim vest.

Notice something interesting? They all look different! Can the same be said for these (still fantastic) ladies?

BarbieHeroines

No, it really can’t be. Even imagining Supergirl, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl as non-barbie heroines, their bodies and costumes all feel the same (at least Batgirl gets a mask). We’re interested in genuine different, not just separate costumes that would all fit on the same mannequin.

If you don’t know, ask!

Do you know what lady fans of comics want? More comics they can be a fan of. It’s so gratifying to have titles to throw my full love behind, not just to love with some caveats (I have many caveats about Catwoman). Kate Leth (of Kate or Die) created the Valkyries, a group of women worldwide who own/work in comics shop. I am positive that these women would love to tell you whether or not your comic might be offensive to ladies. Ask the Valkyries, ask a lady friend, get advice from women writers. We’re more than happy to help. You know why? We love comics and we want to love even more comics.

If you can’t manage to care about the social aspects of creating diversity, at least think about the extra money diverse comics will net you. We will throw you money if you can manage to court us correctly. The willingness to engage with us, and create for us is up to you.

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