LOS ANGELES — Selina Kyle’s lacy red bra and its ample, curvy contents fill the first panel of “Catwoman No. 1,” published last year when DC Comics relaunched 52 of its most popular titles. By the last page, she’s straddling Batman and spilling out of her leather suit once more.
Catwoman wasn’t DC’s only female superhero to make her “New 52” debut in lingerie. In “Red Hood and the Outlaws No. 1,” extraterrestrial princess Starfire strikes a Playboy-like pose, bursting out of her purple bikini as she propositions Red Hood. And Voodoo, a shape-shifting half-alien hybrid, spends half of her first issue stripping.
Comics blogs buzzed with debate, and critics cried sexism, pointing to the company’s predominantly male creative staff. DC’s rival Marvel Comics often faces similar criticism — the superhero comics genre historically has been a boys’ club.
But a broader look at the world of comics and the women who work there reveals the industry is far more gender-balanced than the superhero fare suggests. Though women still make up a minority of creative talent at Marvel and DC, their influence is growing. And in comics at large, women are on even footing and gaining ground.
“Outside the world of Marvel and DC, women are just doing it, and it’s awesome,” said Heidi MacDonald, a comics journalist and former editor for Disney and DC Comics. “They’re succeeding or failing on the content of their work.”
Women dominate the pages of manga (comics created in Japan), their graphic novels fill the catalogs of small independent publishers, and their Web comics draw millions of eyeballs.
Sarah Oleksyk, whose first graphic novel, “Ivy,” earned her two prestigious Eisner Award nominations, self-published her book in installments before independent publisher Oni Press picked it up. Eisner winner Vera Brosgol’s graphic novel “Anya’s Ghost” was published by First Second. Both novels are coming-of-age stories — Ivy is a teenager who runs away from home and Anya a Russian immigrant who struggles to fit in at her high school.
“Teenage boys aren’t the only people with money, and unfortunately I think the mainstream comics juggernaut has just been focusing on this little section of readership for a long time,” Oleksyk said. “There’s this gigantic range of stories being told in indie comics — biographies, nonfiction, every sort of thing. So if you don’t want to read something about crime-fighting superheroes, you have 10,000 other subjects to choose, and most of those are independently published.”
Young female comics creators are coming up through the Internet, unhindered by the tastemakers and gatekeepers that guarded comics 30 years ago.
Faith Erin Hicks, turned off by mainstream superhero comics, created a strip called “The Adventures of Superhero Girl” about an otherwise ordinary young woman who uses her super-strength to fight crime. The cartoon was printed in the free Halifax, Canada, newspaper the Coast, but it was online that Hicks amassed her devoted following.
Lora Innes began “The Dreamer” — about a girl whose dreams take her back to the American Revolution — as a Web comic, taking to MySpace to invite teeny-boppers and Revolutionary War enthusiast groups to read the comic online. Now, “The Dreamer” is published by IDW, and Innes continues to attract readers who otherwise might not have set foot in a comics shop.
Industry veterans welcome the influx of female talent and are happy to bid farewell to the days of being grossly outnumbered by men at comic conventions.
“I look at my classes, and it’s not uncommon that there are a few more women than men,” said Jessica Abel, author of the graphic novel “La Perdida.” Abel has taught undergraduate cartooning courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “It’s also not uncommon that they’re the best students in class.”
MacDonald, the Eisner-nominated comics journalist and editor of comics blog the Beat, points to the stark contrast between today’s comics industry and that of the 1980s and ‘90s, when she helped start Friends of Lulu, a nonprofit promoting female readership and participation in comics. The group ceased operating last year.
“I think part of the reason why it faded away is that people were getting their own gigs,” MacDonald said. “The reason for the organization kind of dried up. There was a lot more opportunity, and there wasn’t so much need for it.”
MacDonald points to the success of cartoonists such as MacArthur grant recipient Alison Bechdel, whose graphic memoir “Fun Home” was named the best book of 2006 by Time magazine, and “Hark! A Vagrant” author Kate Beaton, who started by publishing her cartoons online and now draws some of the longest book-signing lines at comic conventions.
MacDonald, Abel, Oleksyk and others are quick to point out that the frequently spotlighted superhero genre is just a tide pool in an ocean of work — a tide pool that has somehow managed to delay the sea change undergone by the rest of the industry.
“They consistently make editorial decisions that seem designed to alienate women,” Abel said. “So it’s self-reinforcing. If you’re constantly straight-arming women, women aren’t going to read them. If they don’t read them, they don’t grow up imagining them. If they don’t grow up imagining them, they’re not going to make them.”
Though she disagrees with the practice, MacDonald says she understands why the so-called Big Two cater so heavily to teenage boys and men.
“They’re just terrified of getting the girl cooties on there and losing their audience,” she said. “Marvel and DC, they have a different goal, a different corporate mandate. Certainly for Marvel, they are absolutely part of Disney’s great master plan to have more boy readers. ... For DC, as part of the corporate structure, that is more where they fit in.”
But even in the superhero world, new artists and more women are being brought in, partly in response to fan concerns.
“It’s definitely been a push,” said Bobbie Chase, editorial director for DC. “We’re pursuing people all the time who could be new voices for comic books, but it’s still going to be a predominantly male industry. I don’t think that has to change, but we can certainly make a much better balance.”
Chase doesn’t apologize for unrealistically sexy portrayal of DC’s heroines, but she emphasizes context.
“You’re doing idealized, muscled characters, so obviously they don’t look realistic, and they’re in costume,” Chase said, noting that the real measure of progress is in the personalities of such characters as Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Catwoman. “They’re not cheesecakey women books. They’re strong female characters.”
Chase points out that 25 percent of the editorial staff is women. Numbers for the creative staff were not available, but she said that more women are joining the New 52 roster in the coming months.
One of those women is Ann Nocenti, a veteran comics writer recently recruited to take over “Catwoman.”
“I think they reached out to me partly for that reason ... as an effort to bring female perspective into comics,” Nocenti said.
But toning down Catwoman’s sexuality is not part of her plan, she said.
“She puts on a skin-tight leather black catsuit with one zipper,” Nocenti said. “Do you know anyone who dresses like that? If you did, you would assume that they were loving their sexuality. ... I think there should always be intentionality to the sex in a character.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Becky Cloonan, a young comics creator who has distinguished herself with an edgy artistic style.
“I think about character a lot,” said Cloonan. “I’ll sit down and sketch for pages and pages until I get just the right face and body type. ... All women have different bodies, and it’s really fun to try to match that with a character.”
Her work — for Marvel, Vertigo, Tokyopop and Dark Horse as well as self-published titles — falls on both sides of the divide between indie and superhero comics. Cloonan stresses the importance of growing a diverse readership to make earning a living in comics feasible for more people.
She also celebrates how far women have come. When she began reading comics as a child, she said she could count on her fingers the number of female-created titles on comic shop shelves.
“You can definitely see a change in the people creating, and that’s going to show a change in the readership,” she said. “I think more girls should be involved in doing superheroes, but I think there’s going to be a tipping point. ... It might take them five or 10 years to break in to the industry, but I think you’re going to see a real shift in the next few years.”
One thing that the superhero creators and indie creators can agree on is that they’re tired of talking about “women in comics.”
“It’s a running joke at this point, I think,” Brosgol said. “There’ve been so many panels at comic conventions and articles, and they’re becoming a little bit awkward because the people on the panels don’t have any horror stories to relate. They’re just sort of staring at whoever asked the question.”
And that in itself might be the best sign of progress.
“I can’t address it enough,” MacDonald said. “I think the time has come to stop saying, ‘Oh, my God, there are women in comics!’ and just be like, ‘Here’s some really cool stuff.’ And really just talk about the work and not the issue, because it’s just not an issue the way it used to be.”