Donna Dickens loves comics.
As managing editor for Hitfix Harpy, Dickens writes about comic books and other geeky topics and can discuss them eloquently and passionately for long periods of time.
But the comic book store isn’t exactly her favorite place to be.
“It’s very bro-y in there,” Dickens said of a store she frequents. “It’s very ‘Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy in there. They assume you’re in there with your boyfriend, that you don’t know what you’re talking about. And it can be very disheartening.”
(And before you ask where she’s from, she asked us not to say; she has had death threats for things she has written or said. Let that sink in for a minute. Death threats. Over comic books and other geeky topics.)
As this weekend’s Planet Comicon approaches (it starts Friday at Bartle Hall), the comic book world is entering a bit of transition, with a growing segment of new female readers. The website GraphicPolicy.com estimates more than 43 percent of comic fans are women. Other sites have set the mark closer to 46 percent.
The “Big Two” publishers — Marvel Comics and DC Comics — have taken notice. One of Marvel’s great critical successes in the last few years is Ms. Marvel, a young Muslim girl who discovers she can stretch and grow.
The company also gave Thor’s hammer and powers to a woman (spoiler ahead), the Thunder God’s longtime girlfriend Jane Foster, who is suffering from cancer. The change boosted sales, landing the title in the top 10 for several months after. (The book is written by KC comic creator Jason Aaron.)
But with transition comes discomfort. Female fans may love the medium, but many aren’t loving the experience that goes along with it. While some attempts to attract more readers are working, others have fallen flat. There have been allegations of sexism and harassment at DC Comics. And some antiquated thoughts and beliefs among comic book fans and pros aren’t going away easily.
“There seems to be this bizarre belief that girls are going to come into the comic book clubhouse and suck out all the fun,” Dickens said. “That is not what we want to do. We just want the clubhouse to feel like it’s not suffocating us and treating us as subhuman.”
Sexy but not gratuitous
By day, Erica Batton is a substitute teacher. By night, evenings and weekends, she’s an Independence-based independent comic creator.
“My ultimate goal is to make comics for a living,” she said. “I want to do my own titles and corrupt more youths to come into comics.”
She views many of the new efforts of comic publishers to cater to female readers as positive. Strong characters such as Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel. Strong writers such as Kelly Sue DeConnick and Gail Simone. Less body-painted spandex and more practical costuming for Batgirl and Spider-Woman.
But there have been missteps. At a time when Marvel was positioning Spider-Woman as a title geared more toward female readers, the company also commissioned a rare variant cover illustration by erotica artist Milo Manara that angered many fans because he drew her in a suggestive crouch. Even Time magazine chimed in, calling the cover “ludicrously objectified.” Marvel’s editor Axel Alonso apologized to fans, saying, “We want everyone — the widest breadth of fans — to feel welcome to read ‘Spider-Woman.’ ”
“One of the criticisms (of the criticism) has been, ‘Well, she’s posed in a way that we’ve seen Spider-Man posed in a dozen times,’ ” Batton said. “But there’s different context. There are power fantasies on the male characters, which benefit men, and then you have the sexual fantasies with female characters, which also benefit men. There’s not much room for female fans — at least there wasn’t to start, but we’ve started to push back.”
Batton said her own comic, “Panty Vigilante,” isn’t short on sex appeal, but she intends to do more than titillate.
“I write a comic that’s very obviously inspired by Sailor Moon, and almost every cover has something pink on it, and yet most of my buyers are men,” she said. “I would be remiss to say it wasn’t because of sex appeal — she’s drawn very sexy. I think they’re drawn in by its design, but they stick around because it’s a good story or they think it’s funny. At least I would hope so.”
Better stories on TV
The movies based on comic books, however, are lagging behind.
Superhero movies are more or less action movies, she said, and, like action movies in general, female characters tend to be kidnapped girlfriends or murdered mothers, setting up a story for male characters.
“It’s been really kind of sad and depressing how much they’ve lagged,” she said. “We still don’t have a Black Widow (from ‘Avengers’) movie. Mystique wasn’t a terribly interesting character in the first ‘X-Men’ films and now that she’s been played by Jennifer Lawrence, she’s become one of the most interesting characters (in the franchise). And they just have done nothing with her.”
As comic book readership has changed, so has the audience makeup for movies based on comics. When “Iron Man” was released in 2008, ticket buyers on opening weekend were 65 percent male, 35 percent female. The ratio of ticket buyers for 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was 59 percent male, 41 percent female.
“ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ was the one that’s come closest to parity in audience makeup,” Dickens said. “I know it’s going to sound strange, but Marvel knows how to cast really attractive actors, both male and female. We have Scarlett Johansson in her skintight Black Widow outfit, but then we have Chris Evans boxing shirtless while the camera focuses on his butt. I am all about equal opportunity cheesecake/beefcake.”
Anders said the studios also should focus on something everyone enjoys: great storytelling. DC has done so with TV series such as “The Flash” on the CW, and Marvel has succeeded with “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” on Netflix.
“I don’t think there’ve been movies that have been better,” she said.
‘Don’t be a jerk’
Margo Hulse of Kansas City aspires to bring a Japanese sensibility to American comics. She went to art schools in Florida and Kansas City and has always been into comics. Most of her tastes run toward horror comics and manga.
“Usually I keep it within the realm of the paranormal, because I’ve always been interested in that sort of thing,” she said. “If it’s creepy then it’s working.”
She has read some American mainstream comics, too, even though she finds that genre somewhat daunting.
“I feel weird trying to get into that stuff, not just because there is a lot of stuff you have to know but because of the environment for women within that community,” Hulse said. “You have to nerd just as hard as they do, if not more, in order to be taken seriously in that community.”
Hulse said she understands the comic book world has always been kind of a boys club, and it’s not that she feels unsafe. She just feels like she can’t be herself.
“I don’t want to constantly have to argue that I’m valid,” she said. “There’s one local place where I’ve gotten side-eyed in. If you’re a girl, it’s like, ‘Oh, are you here for the mangas or whatever?’ ‘No, I’m here for Green Lantern stuff. Don’t be a jerk.’ ”
Hulse said despite the attitudes, a lot of excellent stuff is happening, with more people of all types being represented in comics, both as readers and creators.
“I’m really pleased to be an artist in this digital age because it’s really opened up this new frontier for artists everywhere, where they can connect with each other and collaborate,” she said.
Elite Comics in Overland Park made the safe spaces list on the Tumblr site HaterFreeWednesdays. Owner William Binderup had a simple formula for making the list: Be nice.
“The world’s full of weird people; if you treat everyone nice, you seem like a great guy,” Binderup said.
The store also hosts a ladies night twice a year where men are banned from the store. Binderup said the last one was packed with about 150 customers.
“My theory is that the female fans have always been there,” he said. “We have just tried to actively pursue them. I think a lot of times they were buying their stuff by mail order because they didn’t feel comfortable.
“Once we let them know they could come in here — that we weren’t having weird sexist conversations, that no one was going to hit on them, and no one’s going to be explaining why Superman is stronger than Hulk or any of that silliness — they started showing up every week.”
To reach David Frese, arts and entertainment editor, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DavidFrese
“Planet Comicon” runs Friday through Sunday at Bartle Hall. Passes range from $30 to $75 through PlanetComicon.com.