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Digging into Gender and Comics at San Diego Comic-Con

Three women in a comic stare at the viewer in front of big statues

The stars of Grace Randolph's superhero comic Supurbia, on its first issue cover. 

I came to Comic-Con International this weekend with an eye on gender—how would female fans and comics creators be represented in the convention that draws 150,000 proud nerds to San Diego? 

Day one alone of the epic convention included three gender-specific panels: The Witty Women of SteampunkGender in Comics, and The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: Dual Identities, which all included a mix of academics, comics creators, and fan community organizers.

My takeaway from three panels was big and simple: the female experience is the human experience, people just aren't trained to think that way. Jeanine Schaefer, editor of the new all-female X-Men series, said on the Gender in Comics panel that when the idea first came up to do an all-female X-Men series, "There was a lot of, 'What if they all get their periods at the same time? I wouldn't want to be a dude when that happens!'" Marvel went forward with the comic, but, "Online, people kept asking, 'Why can't you just identify with dudes?' And I just wanted to be like, 'Guys! I've been doing that my whole life because there is no one else to identify with!'" 

Dire predictions aside, X-Men #1 sold more than any other comic in the month in which it was released.

Despite the overall optimism that readers can connect with female characters, queer characters, and characters of color, panel moderator Christina Blanch noted that in the popular imagination, comics is still a man's world. A Ball State University professor who also teaches a popular online gender-through-comics class, Blanch related the results of a class experiment in which she had students read comics in public and gauge the reaction. Every single one of the women was questioned by passersby about why she was reading a comic. On the other hand, only one male student was questioned, and he was reading Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The panelists agreed that the development that has most changed the landscape for women in comics is the ability to buy them online—without going to the kinds of stores that Blanch referred to as "rapey." At the same time, creators urged the audience to pre-order comics they like from their neighborhood stores because that's the only way the stores will ever carry them. Comics writer Grace Randolph says she often hears from fans that Supurbia, her multi-racial comic populated with both male and female heroes, is not available in stores. Dafna Pleban, an editor at Boom!, which publishes Supurbia, bemoaned the effect that a lack of diversity has had on her favorite genre:

"Women love superheroes. We love characters who are empowered both physically and as people who make decisions in their lives. This perception that women read different genres is why the superhero genre is where it is now—because it has limited voices. In the end, being inclusive and being seen by other people as human, that's just good writing. If you want to tell the story you have to do it."

Though the Witty Women of Steampunk panel contained very few actual references to the gender of the panelists or of their characters, Anina Bennett, author of Boilerplate, summed up why steampunk—a subgenre of speculative fiction set in a psuedo-historical, steam-powered era—provides such fertile ground for female artists who want to reclaim an historical image of womanhood:

People make a categorical distinction in their minds between fiction and history, and they think that history is pure fact, utterly objective, no information left out. But history is written by winners, we all know that. So part of what we're trying to do is tweak those lines a little bit and get them to think about when they're reading other things that are supposedly non-fiction, there's always a point of view.

I tracked down panelist Kaja Foglio, author of steampunk comic Girl Genius, on the convention floor to find out what it is about steampunk that makes it a good fit for women writers and female characters.

"I think we see the age of steam as this time of adventure and travel and that's something that people enjoy. I mean everybody does. And there really were women doing exciting things back then. They just didn't get as much press," said Foglio. "So now you have female creators saying, 'Cool, we can tell her story.' But it's not just because I'm a woman—I think it's more of human thing really, to like exotic locations and interesting machines."

Other comics coverage: Why I Love Cosplay; The Five Best Genderqueer Characters in Comics; Four Women-Created Graphic Novels You Should Acquire ImmediatelyAn Interview with X-Men #1 Series Editor Jeanine Schaefer. Plus, listen to our podcast episode all about nerds!

CORRECTION: The original version of this post mistakenly attributed Dafna Pleban's quote to Grace Randolph.


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Comments

4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Comic Stores

The part about comic book stores reminded me of what eventually led me to stop reading most mainstream comics and switch to graphic novels and especially webcomics. When I moved to graduate school, I was thrilled to find a great comic book store near the university. Not only did they have a varied selection of more than Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc., they actually had an entire section of indie comics managed by one of the main clerks. Oh, and the clerks were great, too! There were women clerks who were treated with as much respect as the guys. They were willing to explore titles that might not have a huge demand.

There were problems, I admit. Sure, there was a back section behind curtains for the x-rated comics that perhaps was frequented way too much by the stereotypical comic book guy. Some of the male customers did find it odd to have women in the store. Those were tolerable as the store was awesome for its selection, great staff, and non "rapey" feeling (as long as one stayed away from the curtained area).

Then, came that horrible winter holiday. I was gone for three weeks. Every clerk that I liked had been fired. Most shocking to me is the loss of the guy who fought for the indies. The new clerks hinted that the manager did not like their opinions on comics and what the shop was about. I did not think much of it, and kept going until the incident.

Wednesday... new comic day. I happily go in. The clerk at the counter, who I do not know, quickly informs me that the new Wonder Woman is in. I do not read WW.. Never have. I don't read any DC comics. I ignore him. As I'm perusing, I find a few issues that I'm willing to explore, plus a few of my regular reads. A wandering clerk tells me that the new Wonder Woman is in. Five minutes later, the clerk from the counter informs me again about the new WW. He repeats it again when I just stare at him dumbfounded. I drop my unpurchased comics on a counter and leave. Never went back.

Seems harsh? Perhaps. However, let me be clear. Neither of these guys have ever talked to me about what I read. They didn't even bother looking at the titles I had grabbed (which, knowing myself at the time, probably included Powers, a Spider-Man or two, Hell Boy, Tom Beland, anything Andi Watson or Scott Morse, etc.). They simply assumed that a girl in a comic store would want to read Wonder Woman. If it had been a few years later, they probably would have shunted me to where the manga was. Actually, probably to a completely separate area for girly mangas.

I quit going to that comic shop despite its convenience. I tried some other ones for a bit. No sexist assumptions encountered, but they were out of my way. My reading of webcomics increased more from that point, and I just stopped going to comic book stores. I do miss some of that interaction, but not that last bit where my gender dictates what I must read.

kate the metageek

What comics to read

Girl Genius writes its own rules in a lot of ways. They're good at being carried in traditional book stores, they brought professional art into a webcomic environment very early, and they've built a dangerously useful fan base. They expect every character (regardless of gender, race, age, species) to be interesting. While steampunk is an interesting environment where it's acceptable to do certain things that might come across as ridiculous in even a superhero setting, the Foglios normally claim not to be constrained even by the tenuous rules of this genre, or of sci fi. In gaslight fantasy, it's cool to wear the corset on the outside, and the history we like to tweak with time travelers simply didn't occur (though the time travelers probably still did).

This new xmen looks good, and I know I can respect this series. I may have to try that.

Most websites that discuss supurbia compare it to a reality show, and give it a single paragraph. I've never seen reality tv as entertainment, so this isn't clicking with me. Does anyone who reads it want to provide a better explanation?

Supurbia

The idea behind Supurbia is that all the superheroes live in a suburb together with their families. Both men and women are superheroes and there is even a gay superhero couple which the writer said she created in order to redeem the Batman/Robin relationship from aspersions of pedophilia. There is also a character named Hella Hart who is a subversion of Harley Quinn. I think when people say reality TV they're just referring to the fact that the show was very loosely inspired by the Real Housewives stuff as well as Desparate Housewives. Randolph's overall strength, though, is in humanizing comic book archetypes. Hope that helps!

Remarkable!

feel the difference with innovation, heavenly appropriations are somewhat best.