Of Batwomen and Squirrel Girls: Why Comics Are Becoming Increasingly Female
When C2E2 2017 begins Friday in Chicago, the comic book publishing industry will look much more female than it has been in decades.
The origin story of Amy Chu — mild-mannered Harvard MBA from New Jersey, turned brand-name superhero scribe — goes like this: As a jet-setting business consultant, life was humming along, but she remained unsatisfied. Until about six years ago, when she ran into a friend from college with a prescient idea: Comic books for young women. The market looked underserved, but Chu knew nothing about comics. So she did research. She took an online comics-writing class (“I had no idea what they were talking about”), and with her friend, Georgia Lee, now a writer at the SyFy channel, flew to Chicago, to attend C2E2, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, take notes, make contacts.
“We’re two women, just walking around this convention, and one of our first experiences is checking out the artists area and getting asked by guys if we’d model,” Chu said. “It was way worse than Wall Street — nobody on Wall Street ever asked me to model. And you’d get mansplained all the time, on everything. Nobody cared about a Harvard MBA.”
Still, she took to comics like a natural, and within a couple of years, Chu was writing for Wonder Woman and Deadpool and Poison Ivy and Ant-Man. Her timing had been right.
“I wouldn’t say it’s great now for women in comics,” she said. “It’s no advantage. People still question your professional credibility all the time. But we are getting closer to parity.”
Indeed, when C2E2 2017 begins Friday at McCormick Place, the comic book publishing industry will look much more female than it has been in decades, from the crime fighters leaping across its pages, to the writers and artists and editors who created them. The notable characters represented at C2E2 this year by a writer or artist include the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Batwoman, Spider-Gwen, Supergirl, Batgirl and a newly female Thor; among the several female creators attending are Chu, Jordie Bellaire (“Dr. Strange”) and Kate Leth (“Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat!!”), who started an online forum named Beware the Valkyries exclusively for female comic book store employees.
Marvel and DC, historically the largest comic book publishers, won’t release customer demographics, but the past couple of years have seen several studies, from among others Publishers Weekly and Amazon’s popular Comixology hub for online comics, that suggest between 30 and 50 percent of new comic book readers in recent years have been female. “This is certainly the strongest moment in ages for women, in terms of representation for creators and characters,” said Hope Nicholson, author of a new history, “The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen.” “In the 1940s, in the golden age of comics, female readership was on par with male. Torchy Brown, one of the first female characters in comics, was made by a black woman, who kept the merchandising rights! In the 1930s! Only now is it returning to anything like parity, and I think that’s because women have a million new entry points now, like social media and web comics.”
Of course, on movie and TV screens, where you’re more likely to encounter superheroes now, the picture is spottier: DC finally has a Wonder Woman movie (June 2), Marvel has a “Captain Marvel” film (starring Brie Larson) in the works, and its Netflix series “Jessica Jones” is arguably Marvel’s TV high point so far. But there are no signs of Scarlett Johansson’s popular, long-running Black Widow getting her own movie; and other than Catwoman, Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn (in hot pants) is DC’s finest hour.
Even at C2E2, the vast majority of writers and artists are male. Which is beginning to look like a disconnect: Walk the hallways of McCormick and you are as likely to run into a cosplay Black Widow as a cosplay Iron Man. And when a Marvel Comics vice president created a stir recently by saying the ethnic and gender diversity of its superheroes has hurt sales, he came off more tone deaf than pragmatic. In March, to honor Women’s History Month, Challengers Comics in Bucktown hosted an almost-nightly talk series with female creators of comics.
Owner Patrick Brower said he was, in a way, also being practical: “Without question, the majority of new customers we get now are women. And that’s because there’s more representation, and not just of gender but sexuality, religion. I’m a middle-class white guy who grew up with white superheroes, and I never thought, ‘This is for me,’ because of course it was. But when you get a Ms. Marvel, who is a female Muslim teenage hero? That’s an industry holding up a mirror to its audience.”
Ms. Marvel, among the creative watermarks for comics recently, was a breakthrough. Now there’s a Chinese Superman, a black Captain America. Thor is a woman. Batwoman is a lesbian. Independent publishers have been even stronger with strong female characters: The best-reviewed, most popular indie titles in recent years are either written, drawn and starring women (“Bitch Planet,” “Monstress”), or written by men featuring strong females, in particular Brian K. Vaughan’s “Saga” and “Paper Girls.”
The landscape for female comic book creators has been so promising lately that some don’t recall a time when the industry wasn’t as accommodating: Jenny Frison, an artist from Chicago whose work been on the cover of “Wonder Woman” and “Revival,” said, “It’s not like it was 20 years ago. I’ve heard the stories, of conventions with no women at all, of the industry not having any women. That’s never been true for me. There are not as many (women) but I’ve always been working with women — multiple women.”
Jill Thompson remembers.
She grew up in Forest Park and lives in Chicago and began drawing comics in the 1980s. Her acclaimed work has been seen in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman,” “Wonder Woman” and her own “Scary Godmother” series. “But when I first started, I would go to comic conventions and there would always be this one other female artist, who I ran across all the time,” she said. “We would always get confused for each other. But I didn’t find it as hard as other (women). Maybe because I had a great group of male friends (in the business), and when I was rejected I assumed it was because I wasn’t good enough as an artist. But also, before, women weren’t as vocal about being included, and now, they are completely comfortable talking about comic books. It’d be hard not to notice.”
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C2E2 is particularly strong this year if you’re into smart female characters. Here are a handful of the best being represented by their current creators.
The Former Sidekick
Created: 1961, Sheldon Moldoff (artist), Bill Finger (writer)
New creators: “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey,” Shawna and Julie Benson (writers), Claire Roe (artist)
If ever a character embodied the history of female superheroes, it’s Batgirl: She had been Robin’s love interest, and Batman’s child; played lighter-than-air by Yvonne Craig on TV (and Alicia Silverstone on film); reworked as a sexy librarian and crime-fighting daughter of Commissioner Gordon; paralyzed by the Joker; improbably given use of her legs again. Despite being part of Bat-mythology for a half-century, she didn’t get her own comic until 2000. But since then, Batgirl has been a core DC figure: Writer Gail Simone’s “Batgirl” (which started in 2011, and gave Batgirl a transgender roommate) felt so definitive, Joss Whedon (of “The Avengers” and “Buffy”) just started a Batgirl movie.
Batgirl is now popular enough to headline two comics: “Batgirl,” and “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey,” which is written by Shawna and Julie Benson from Morton, Ill., outside Peoria. “Batgirl and the Birds are a family, so I think we bring a sisterly bond to their voices that’s unique,” said Julie, who with her sister also writes “The 100” for the CW. Shawna notes Simone’s take “made (Batgirl) feel more like she was part of the times. She gave us that question of what it means to be a young female superhero in 2017. The predominant themes in the ‘90s for entertainment created by women was you can have it all. Now I think it’s, how do you do it well? So we’re writing somewhat the women who came up behind the women who broke through glass ceilings. Barbara Gordon was rebelling, and now she owns her own company. ‘BatGIRL’ is just a name.”
Created: 2016, Joelle Jones (artist, writer)
Since the Eisenhower administration, the go-to satire of domestic bliss has been a zombified housewife, repressed to the point of mania. On the other end: Betty Draper on “Mad Men,” the suburban hells of Richard Yates — unsatisfied, seething women. Jones, a steadily rising star in comics, rejects both images. Josie Schuller, the anti-heroine/housewife of her “Lady Killer” comics, resembles a model in a Sears catalog circa 1962, cheerful, effortlessly glamorous, quick to take the kids to ballet and serve dinner. She’s also a hired assassin — who prefers large butcher knives to guns.
Since starting in comics, Jones has worked on Spider-Woman, Superman and Black Widow, “but when I was growing up I loved the Punisher” — Marvel’s charmless gunslinger of questionable morals. “And initially I was hired for a lot of YA/romance stuff, and I got bored. My first work was for an anthology titled ‘Sexy Chicks.’ But I liked gore! I liked violence with a sense of humor. And I wanted to play around in that world.” The Saturday Evening Post-like glow of “Lady Killer,” her signature work, is more than homage: “I grew up learning to do what was expected, and keep up appearances, so I like characters who can embody contradictions. I was drawn to the plastic smiles of mid-century advertising, and I think a lot about the dark impulses of complicated women.”
The Comic Relief
Created: 1992, Steve Ditko (artist), Will Murray (writer)
New creators: “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” Erica Henderson (artist), Ryan North (writer)
Doreen Green, teenager, student, Iron-Man fan, belittled for having a brown bushy tail, retreated to the woods one day, only to discover — yup, she could talk to squirrels, she could command squirrels. Conceived as a riff on useless super powers, Squirrel Girl has since joined the Great Lakes Avengers, been named protector of Central Park and, despite decades as a cult figure, become durable. Marvel recently announced Squirrel Girl would star in a new live-action TV series, and since 2015, Henderson and North’s “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” has been the smart missing link between children’s and indie comics, playing like an ongoing commentary on the power to not being taken seriously.
“When I was a kid in the ‘90s, I wasn’t really into superheroes,” Henderson said. “You would pick up an X-Men comic and have no idea what was going on. I hated that. The good thing is, a lot of indie comics were appearing and they didn’t see comics as one (superhero) thing.” She studied film at Rhode Island School of Design, made trailers for video games — and also began attending comic cons and meeting comic book editors and building a freelance career. “Marvel emailed about Squirrel Girl out of the blue,” she said. “I was two years into freelancing, so it was exciting to get anything from a major company. And because it was not a character who would get a lot of scrutiny, there was real freedom to just go for it, to establish it as ours and try something light, fun.” She and North took advantage of low expectations, and at last, the character clicked. “But it’s important that Ms. Marvel was popular — comics for new audiences were less scary.”
Created: 1962, Stan Lee and Larry Lieber (writers), Jack Kirby (artist)
New creators: “The Mighty Thor,” Jason Aaron (writer), Russell Dauterman (artist)
Marvel’s early stabs at Norse mythology were like Disney’s take on the Brothers Grimm: The outline remained, and the heaviness was jettisoned. Thor lived in the body of a medical student with a bad leg (who we learn later was created by the gods, to host Thor). So two years ago, when Marvel announced Thor’s sex was about to change, the inspiration seemed to have shifted to Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” whose title character begins life as a man and gradually, over centuries, transforms into a woman. Thor, alongside Spider-Man and Captain America, took up the mantle of diversity in comics.
Two years later, the new female Thor has been one of the more compelling storylines at Marvel. But Aaron — whose work includes Marvel’s popular “Star Wars” comics and an acclaimed Vietnam comic told partly from the vantage point of a Vietnamese soldier — remembers “an online fervor when Marvel announced the change. It was announced on ‘The View,’ which was a strange choice. It hadn’t actually been part of any larger push for diversity. Marvel was doing this big creative summit and a bunch of titles that had the same writers for years were up for grabs. It was never ‘Let’s make Thor a woman.’ I’m a white guy in Kansas City, so I wouldn’t claim to be the face of diversity in comics. As a kid, Thor was not even a favorite. I wanted to tell the story of Thor becoming unworthy, of not being able to pick up his hammer. Along comes Jane Foster, who had been his girlfriend in the earliest days (of the comic). She was back in the comic and dealing with breast cancer, so I seized on the idea of her picking up the hammer, stepping into the role of hero. But every time she picks up the hammer, she neutralizes the effects of the chemotherapy a little more. We have to do this right — I don’t want her cancer magically cured. It is not that kind of story, and I do not feel I am anywhere close to being done.”
Created: 1956, Sheldon Moldoff (artist), Edmond Hamilton (writer)
New creators: “Batwoman,” Marguerite Bennett (writer), Steve Epting (artist)
There’s a wonderful subversive touch to the return of Batwoman. She was introduced by DC in the 1950s as Batman’s girlfriend, as a way to beat back the charges from comic book critics that Batman and Robin were created to promote homosexuality. She was Kathy Kane then. And when she returned to DC in 2006, she was Kate Kane, red hair flowing out of an even creepier Bat-cowl. She was also Jewish, and a lesbian with U.S. military training. Batwoman has anchored several comics since then, and judging from the number of cosplaying Batwomen at comic book conventions, she’s become a fan favorite. Bennett, who is writing her latest iteration, explains why: “Batwoman is an adult, she makes her own choices. Batman was always going to be Batman — he’s a force of nature. But Kate, she was kicked out of West Point, but also was inspired (by Batman), and so she decided for herself that she would be Batwoman.”
If there’s a subtext to Bennett’s “Batwoman,” it’s a struggle with legacy. “I want her to wrestle with finding a place where she contrasts with Batman,” she said. “He’s hard-lined about certain things, she’s morally practical, but operating within the Bat legacy.” Bennett, a Virginia native who wanted to be a writer from an early age, said she gravitated to Batman after becoming addicted to the 1990s animated Batman series. “Cartoons for kids, and little girls, are clean, aspirational. This wasn’t those things. Its heroines got to be themselves. They had agency, and ever since, I’ve been hooked.”
Created: 1944, Otto Binder (writer), Ruth Atkinson (artist).
New creators: “Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat!” Brittney Williams (artist), Kate Leth (writer).
Patsy Walker is the smartest of oddities. She debuted at a moment when young girls could be as reliably counted on to read comics as young boys. She was the star of “Miss America Magazine,” published by Timely Comics (which later became Marvel). It told the story of an ordinary teenage girl’s daily travails. After the character returned in 1976, she was Hellcat, dressed in a yellow catsuit, occasionally joining Avengers and Defenders on adventures and rarely straying far from her supporting role. (When the Avengers created a 50-state defense initiative, Hellcat was assigned to patrol Alaska.)
None of which predicts the shift in tone, or the invention, of Williams and Leth’s “Patsy Walker,” a knowing, candy-colored workplace comic that finds Patsy, freshly fired from the legal offices of She-Hulk, starting a job placement agency for people with super abilities. In a clever meta-twist, Patsy, who is dealing with her cringy, former life as a romance-comic heroine, also sets out to control the rights to her 1940s comic books.
Created: 1941, William Marston (writer), Harry Peter (artist)
New creators: Greg Rucka (writer), Matthew Clark and Liam Sharp (artists).
Like Superman, Wonder Woman is one of those superheroes who has always had a problem connecting. She’s powerful and, as Chicago artist Jill Thompson puts it, “a bit perfect, a little boring. So I never read her when I was growing up.” Drawing Wonder Woman, a cornerstone character, was Thompson’s first job for DC; and last year, her graphic novel “Wonder Woman: The True Amazon,” dug deep into the character’s roots. The history of the comic book would look very different without Wonder Woman, but enthusiasm for her ebbs and flows. Unless you’re Rucka, then the love is eternal.
He said when he first told DC he wanted to write Wonder Woman, he told them the politics of her feminism needed embracing, too often writers run from her meaning. After that, DC sent him to lunch with Gloria Steinem, where he took notes for four hours. Indeed, after 20 years of superhero stories, Rucka is that rarest of male comic-book writers: He is arguably more celebrated for his female characters than his Batman and Wolverine. He’s written Elektra and Black Widow and was key to the creation of the new Batwoman. But his Wonder Woman, which he returned to recently, is his finest hour.
“I see her as a Dalai Lama or a Gandhi,” he said. “Not so much a character as a vessel for an idea. A person of pure empathy. Batman goes out every night to stop what happened to 8-year old Bruce Wayne from happening to others. Superman is out promoting the values he was raised with. But Diana, she’s from a utopian society. She leads by example. She does not always throw a punch. Add all the baggage heaped on a self-actualized woman in a male-gaze-laden society, it’s is an uphill battle. But worth it. I have her fighting Cheetah, a nemesis, in one issue and the fight ended with Diana restraining her with her arms. She lets Cheetah basically tantrum it away. She hugged it out. You can fight her, and you will lose. But can you think of another character, in the whole superhero universe, who would have the patience to carry that off as a solution?”