Monday, June 23, 2003

Looking To The Stars: A Modest Proposal, Part Two

Last week, I spoke about how we need to help bring children into the wonderful little hobby of comic books. This is a difficult task since, as I discussed, most of the comics in the market today are not written with children in mind and many retailers and do not handle children in a respectable manner.

There is another group, as equally important and ignored yet more often insulted by the comic-reading community than children. They make up the majority of our world population and yet are only 10 to 25-percent of the comic fandom market, depending on which survey you adhere to. I speak, of course, of women.

The subject of women as comic fans has been coming up a lot in my life in the last month. A grandmother and her ferocious reader of a six-year old grand daughter were in my store the other day, and the grandmother lamented the fact that there were so few comics written for young girls these days.

And then there was a meeting, which prompted a discussion of why we, the small independent comic dealers, seem to be loosing a lot of business regarding one product and one key demographic to the larger book stores like Barnes and Noble & Borders. The product is Manga graphic novels and the demographic is teenage girls.

And finally, a coworker of mine pointed out that he rarely saw any female customers at his store. All the women he saw at work were usually the girlfriend, sister, mother or wife of a male customer and were totally disinterested in what he was selling.

I have thought about these problems and I have, if not a solution, an identification of the major sticking points and a modest proposal of how we can make comics safe for the fairer sex.

1. What Women Want

This may come as a shock to some of you, but women want the exact same thing men want when then come into a comic book store; a little thing called Respect. As mentioned last week, nobody likes being talked down to or made to feel stupid. And as sad as it is, I’ve seen more of my colleagues (and oh, how it hurts me to call them that) in the hobby talk down to female fans than to children.

Case in point; among many other items, my store carries a number of fantasy statue lines. There’s a number of wizards, quite a few dragons… and a large number of fairies, angels and horses. Another salesman suggested that we start steering all female customers entering the store towards these statue displays as soon as they came in. My store also recently started carrying “Hello Kitty” merchandise, in a move to “carry more products that might appeal to female customers”.

Now why is this an issue with me? Call me a PC thug, but isn’t it just a little presumptuous to assume that a woman entering a comic book store is going to want to look at fairy statues and stuffed toys? Could it not be possible that maybe… just maybe… she might actually want to look at the comics? Not that I have any objections to carrying fairy statues or stuffed animals. Far from it, as the Hello Kitty merchandise has been a big hit with some of the Goth grrls who frequent by store and a huge seller. But I find it a bit rude (and possibly suicidal) to walk up to a woman and say “Ooooh… you don’t want to read that Wolverine book. Here… let me show you a nice statue of a unicorn!”

So as utterly simple as this may sound, those of us who work in the comic shops need to talk to the female customers and get to know them and their interests. Then you can show them things that might interest them as individuals instead of making a broad generalization of what women should want. This is just as offensive as telling an African-American patron that he should be reading “Black Panther”. (Actually, everyone should be reading “Black Panther”. And “The Crew”. But I digress.)

2. Manga – Why Does It Attract Women So Well?

Manga-style comics are becoming more and more popular, particularly with younger women. Many publishers, noting this trend, are now adopting the Manga style of artwork for their books… and yet are ignoring the types of stories many Manga books tell. Perhaps the best example of this is Marvel Comics, whose new Tsunami line boats artwork by artists with a heavy Manga influence and yet many of the stories are the same old, same old. I’m sure, for example, that there are LOTS of women who were looking forward to the Namor series.

In all seriousness, I’ve noticed that women, more often then men, tend to choose their comics based upon the quality of the writing than the artwork. Indeed, many of the more popular Manga books are those which do not feature big robots, magic or super powers. Many are simple, soap-opera style stories, akin to the romance comics of the 50’s and 60’s. And even the ones that do feature robotic or super heroines tend to be more thoughtful and emotion-driven than many of the action-driven stories of American graphic literature. This is, in my opinion, why Manga does so well. It is not the artwork; it is the subject matter of the writing and the stronger female characters that are easier to relate to.

The sad fact is that male characters have always dominated comics. Try and name a female superheroine who isn’t the successor/sidekick of a male hero. Hard, isn’t it? Most of you probably said Wonder Woman or Catwoman and froze up. The X-Men fans among you probably got a few more names. But aside from them, who is there that is really famous? Batgirl and Supergirl are good, but stuck in the shadows of the men who came before them. Marvel, with the exception of Spider-Girl and Mystique, no female character has a solo title all to herself. Ditto Batgirl and Wonder Woman at DC and Witchblade and Tomb Raider at Top Cow.

Which brings me to a quick side note to all those who operate a comic store: take down the pin-up posters from your walls and windows, please! I respect the artistic talents of Michael Turner and J. Scott Campbell as much as anyone else. But even I, liberal as I am, get disturbed when I go into a strange comic shop and the walls look like an exhibit on “The Wonders of The Female Anatomy” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lady Death and Purgatori have their place and that is place is not in your window. It is stores like this which promote the stereotype that most comic-book reading men are perverts.

3. Why Don’t The Ladies Like Us?

This begs us to the question of why larger bookstores do such a better job of selling Manga than the smaller independent stores. There is no one major factor here. The larger bookstores have name recognition, better advertising, the ability to take a loss on some products more easily so they can offer a better sales price than the smaller stores. and also allow books to be mail-ordered; something which many comic shops cannot do.

But if I were to venture a guess, I’d say there is one major reason why women prefer larger bookstores; comfort. Your average large bookstore has a café and coffee bar and a place to sit down. Your average comic book store, does not. Your average large bookstore allows people to wander around, take their time and read through things. Your average comic book store, if it does not have everything on the shelves sealed up in a protective bag, is likely to have a large number of “Do Not Read The Comics” signs around. Not exactly the greatest thing for creating a hospitable atmosphere.

So what can we do about this? Well, maybe you could have one copy available as a reading or browsing copy? Maybe you can set up some chairs so that all your patrons can sit down for a minute. And while the idea of putting a Starbucks inside a comic shop may be a bit TOO revolutionary (to say nothing of the damage that spilt frappuccino could do to the reading copy), it couldn’t hurt to try and make the store interior a bit more friendly

Which brings up another point: the people in your store. Most large bookstores employ an even mix of men and women, of all ages and races. Your average comic bookstore employee on the other hand, is likely single, white and male. And not to promote the stereotype again, but a number of them are likely to view any young woman who enters the store as a potential girlfriend. Some of them are a little socially inept and have no idea how to talk to any woman besides their mother in any context. And some of them are just plain scary or have bad hygiene.

So to all of you walking Simpsons characters out there? Little advice… It’s called showering, deodorant, shaving, brushing your hair, brushing your teeth and just plain grooming yourself. Who knows? You might someday get lucky enough to find that woman who finds your knowledge of The Hulk’s physiology OH so sexy at work, but it ain’t going to happen if she passes out everytime she moves downwind of you. For those of you in a position of authority, institute a dress code. Nothing major: just a nice shirt and slacks should be enough.

4. Interesting Women in Comics

Many of the same general principals I discussed last week regarding how to get children interested in comics apply just as well towards women.

Fun Fact; For most of the summer of 2002, the most popular movie among women 13-25 was Spider-Man. This caused quite a to-do in the media and many “experts” quibbled over how and why a movie like this could be so popular with women. The answer was obvious to me; Spider-Man has always been, since the early Stan Lee issues, just as much a romance as it was an action thriller. And the writing/directing team did a first rate job of translating that to the screen. It wasn’t your typical mindless Bruce Willis explosions movie; it was a perfect blend of action, drama and comedy that is very rarely done in movies today, much less done well. Quite a shock, I’m sure to those experts that think comic books are a “boys only” medium.

Boys only? Explain to me then how some of the more action-filled comics today are being penned by women. Gail Simone balanced action and comedy better than the majority of her male counterparts ever did during her runs on Deadpool and Agent X and is currently doing the same stellar work on Birds of Prey. Devin Grayson has made her name doing action-packed yet emotionally stunning stories across many Batman titles and is currently pulling monthly duties on Nightwing. Barbara Kessel has done a lot of good work at CrossGen. Witchblade, which has taken some flack for having perhaps the most uncomfortable costume in all of comicdom, was created by a woman; Christina Z. And in the early issues of that series, the cheesecake artwork was balanced by humorous notes about how much Sara Pezzini hated her clothes getting damaged by the Witchblade as it formed armor around her.

And I can’t even name all of the female artists, inkers, letterers, colorists and self-published Internet cartoonists working today. And with organizations like the Friends of Lulu, the idea of comics being a boys club is laughable, at best.

And even now, publishers are finding more ways to bring young girls into the hobby. Marvel, for example, recently recruited a romance novelist to write a series of books about the teenage Mary Jane Watson. The book, simply called “Mary Jane”, shows how a young MJ deals with being the new kid in town, trying to fit in, her crush on her next door neighbor and, oh yes, helping him as he copes with his new superpowers.

Personally, I would like to see a return of DC’s old Amethyst series. Forget Outsiders and Titans! The last thing DC needs right now is another set of team books. What it really could use is a simple comic about a girl who is really a lost princess, living a double life as an ordinary girl and the ruler of an entire planet. I’ve shown some of the old issues of the series to the young ladies in my store and they all loved it, but were sad to find out the book wasn’t being written anymore.

The audience is there, folks. Just needs a team to step up to the plate.

While this may help with bringing in younger female readers, I don’t think such drastic pinpoint measures need to be made for mature female readers. You see, we already have a model for what we can use to bring women into comic books. Something that is equal parts science fiction and fantasy with a lot of action and romance. Something that shows you can have strong female characters who don’t fall into the “bitch from hell” stereotype.

That model, my readers, is Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Yes, I know it was just canceled. And you know what? I’ll bet the week after it was canceled, we had more female customers in my store looking through the Buffy Comic books than I had ever seen before in all the months I’d been working there. Buffy is the proof of what I have been saying this whole time: create something that has characters women can relate to and admire that balances action with romance and a little bit of comedy, and they will come after it like gangbusters. In fact, our Dark Overlord Daron confessed to me that his ex-girlfriend introduced him to the show.

So to all of you out there who know a woman going through Buffy withdrawal, get her a copy of the comic. It couldn’t hurt.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt Website.

No comments:

Post a Comment