Let’s Talk About Comics

I was recently interviewed for an article in Paste Magazine, along with Paul and several other creators, on the topic of sexism in the comics industry. The article didn’t have room for everything I had to say, so here are my answers to writer Frannie Jackson’s questions, in full:

Q: How would you describe the current status of gender equality in the industry?

Demonology 101 by Faith Erin Hicks. Webcomic, 1999-2004

Demonology 101 by Faith Erin Hicks. Webcomic, 1999-2004

It kind of depends on how you define “the industry”. If you look beyond the rather narrow genre of superhero adventures, the ratio of men-to-women having success making comics becomes more even every year. That’s been due in large part to web comics, where anyone and everyone can publish to the whole world, practically for free. And now crowd funding is allowing people to finance quality print comics, if they take the time to put together an attractive campaign.

Meanwhile women do continue to do work for hire at the large publishing houses. There are not as many women in those roles as men, but most professionals today got into comics as fans, and most fans who become professionals gravitate toward the genres they grew up reading. I grew up reading every comic I could get my hand on; superhero, humor, underground, or fantasy. I’ve wound up dabbling in all those genres. Most of the young women I know grew up reading manga, horror-fantasy, and web comics, so they tend not to have as much interest in working in superhero comics as their male contemporaries. Publishers who put out comics in more of a variety of genres tend to have more women freelancers working with them for that reason.

Q: Have you or your colleagues experienced/witnessed sexism in the industry? 

Not on any professional level. I mean, I’ve never known of any assignment not going to me or to another woman because of gender. I know there are some editors who actively look for available women artists and writers when they are assigning projects. I’m sure that things sometimes go the other way, but it hasn’t been my experience.

On the Women Of Marvel panel in 2008. Sonia Obeck, me, and Emily Warren

On the Women Of Marvel panel in 2008. Sonia Obeck, me, and Emily Warren

Q: How often does your gender get brought up in interviews?

Honestly, it only comes up when the topic of the interview is the role of women in comics. When the topic is my work, or comics in general, I can’t remember it ever being remarked on. Sometimes reviewers will make note of the fact that the women I draw are “cute” rather than “sexy”. I’m occasionally invited to participate in panel discussions about “women in comics”. I’m usually emotionally torn by those invitations, because, yeah, I want women in comics to thrive and be seen as thriving, but I’d much rather be part of a discussion about “awesome creators in comics” that’s stacked with awesome women and men.

Q: What are your thoughts on how men and women are portrayed in comic books? 

That’s an impossible question to answer. It’s like asking how men and women are portrayed in novels, or how they’re portrayed in theatre. Women are very well portrayed in autobiographical comics by women, for example. I mean, duh.

But usually when people talk about comics in America, they’re talking about superheroes, specifically those produced by Marvel and DC. And in those comics, just like any others, some portrayals are gonna be great, some poor, some are just gonna be mediocre. I like it when characters are written to be smart and complex. I don’t enjoy a villain being given a long résumé of sexual violence, just to show what a bad guy he is. I don’t like it when women characters are introduced merely to fall victims of some atrocity so the hero can avenge them. But I don’t like that on TV, either. I don’t like it in movies; I don’t like it in romance novels.

Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Published by Image Comics.

Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Published by Image Comics.

I know that the writers and artists and editors at both of the big superhero companies work very hard to do the best comics stories they possibly can. I know that sometimes their efforts are hampered by the marketing needs of their massive corporate media owners, who put primary value that core audience of young male readers. Yes, superhero comics can and do appeal to some women, but their target is men.

That’s why it’s so important for the medium of comics to have a healthy population of independent publishers, to show that comics other than superheroes– adventure, fantasy, romance, mystery, horror, even non-fiction– can be successful and profitable. Creator-owned books like Saga, our own Bandette, and Walking Dead, show that you can have adventure comics for adults that are successful across gender lines. Even licensed media properties can break the mold; the success of books like My Little Pony and Adventure Time show that to be true. These are seriously good books, whose relatively small publishers have made a real effort to bring in quality writers and artists of all genders, and they appeal to girls and boys.


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