Surrender Now: The Women Taking Over the World of Comics
The comics industry has long been thought of as male-dominated—but women are working to change that.
All Photos by Leah James
This year at New York Comic Con (NYCC), women seemed to outnumber men. Some had come with their boyfriends in matching cosplay costumes; others were with their girlfriends, or they had come alone, or roamed in groups. They were young and old, as well as racially diverse. Some of them were transgender, others weren't.
Comics have a reputation of being male-dominated—created for and by white, straight men. But over the last several years, diversity in gender, race, and sexuality has been gaining increased visibility across the nerd-sphere. The NYCC scheduled events reflected this: They included a range of panels on women in comics, the first of which occurred last Thursday evening. It focused on how women continue to "change the game" in the industry, and featured several female comic artists, including a rising star in the indie genre named Sarah Andersen. Andersen purposefully conceals her appearance online in order to avoid the internet-based abuse many female public figures experience. "Being a Woman On The Internet isn't always a cakewalk. I prefer not to open up my face to public scrutiny," she states on her website.
Andersen's semi-autobiographical comic, Sarah Scribbles, depicts an alternative girl humorously contending with insecurity and the awkwardness of life. In one comic, the big-eyed, line-drawn Sarah humbly chows down on a burrito while another woman basks in the vainglory of eating only organic. The imperfection and chillness of Andersen's work makes it stupidly relatable, especially for young women; Sarah is always at odds with growing up, and her identity as a millennial woman in America is characterized in anxious frames, as seen when Sarah laments the disorienting, unattainable beauty created by Snapchat filters, or when she illustrates the severity of her period, or how one's life can fall to shambles while obsessively mastering makeup tutorials on YouTube.
Dr. Louie Dean Valencia Garcia is a lecturer of history and literature at Harvard University who has done significant research into comics—including the mainstream universe of DC Comics, as well as independent comics. According to Valencia, Andersen "is an excellent example of how the independent comic book industry is thriving, finding new audiences, and challenging the medium."
That medium, Valencia explains, has historically underrepresented women, despite the fact that, "girls have long been readers of comic books, since the earliest superhero comics." According to Valencia, in the mid 20th century, a deplorable psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he unhappily complained that Wonder Woman was a lesbian (decades later, Wonder Woman has officially become queer, which is obviously a good thing) and warned of the many evils of comic books on impressionable minds. As reported in the New York Times, Wertham's work has since been discredited, apparently based on "misrepresented" and "falsified" information—but at the time, it had an impact.
In 1954, a censorship organization called the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was established in response to Wertham's complaints. Valencia explains that the CCA "banned the discussion of queer topics, any positive depiction of divorce, and [required] a very heteronormative portrayal of the family." All of this, Valencia says, meant that boys became a greater target audience for most comic books.
I'm lucky to sort of be continuing in the work that women have trail-blazed before me.
Some female superheroes—such as Wonder Woman—persisted despite this, and Valencia points out that Wonder Woman was something of a feminist icon, used strategically by feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem. Then, in the 1970s, a woman named Jenette Kahn became the president and editor-in-chief of DC Comics. "Kahn helped diversify DC Comics, making room for women in the company—bringing women like Janice Race, Louise Simonson, and Karen Berger, to name just a few."
Despite this increase in female creators, the comic culture at large was still male-centric, and Valencia says that women were still portrayed terribly throughout the 90s. At one NYCC panel, a moderator asked the crowd when they first got into comics. "Sailor Moon!" one woman shouted, referring to the iconic manga-turned-television series, which debuted in America in 1995. Others in the crowd cheered in agreement, and the panelists concurred: There was something empowering for women in the Sailor Moon series, which centered female protagonists. And yet, despite Sailor Moon's progressive female focus, it was still restricted. When the series was released in English, the lesbian plot lines were removed for an American audience.
However, Valencia believes one of the greatest shifts for women in comics occurred in 1999, when comic artist Gail Simone created a website called Women in Refrigerators, which, according to the site, listed all the "superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator," as a statement against the treatment of women in comics.
After that, "it became clear that the comic book industry had to change," Valencia says. He explains that the industry that young women have inherited today is "the result of decades of people demanding representation in mainstream media." Such advocacy came in the wake of Wertham's regressive assault on comics and cultural diversity. This provides context for the increased representation of women in comics today—which Valencia says is greater than ever before.
[Comics] will probably remain a sort of bridge between [the mainstream and] the subaltern, or marginalized and oppressed cultures, for the foreseeable future.
Andersen, and the panelists who appeared with her, all seemed tired by questions about their gender, or what it means, or how it feels, to be a woman in comics. They all seemed to share the feeling that their work is not affected by the fact that they are women, with one panelist, surrealist indie comic artist Gabrielle Bell, saying she finds the centering of gender to be condescending, which seemed to bring the panel itself under scrutiny. Why can't they just be artists, rather than women artists?
Another panelist, Arielle Jovellanos, agreed that she doesn't think much about her gender in her work, but recognizes that this is probably thanks, in part, to her predecessors. "I'm lucky to sort of be continuing in the work that women have trail-blazed before me," Jovellanos said.
In Valencia's opinion, the increase in diversity in comics indicates that "marginalized voices" are gaining attention generally in society. Because comics can be affordably produced, as compared to films, they are more likely to represent such cultural shifts (and test their profitability) than industries with higher production costs. Because of this, Valencia says that comics "will probably remain a sort of bridge between [the mainstream and] the subaltern, or marginalized and oppressed cultures, for the foreseeable future."
To some female creators, intentionally diversifying women's representation is an important part of the art they make. The most recent high profile inclusion of women in comics came earlier this year, when Roxane Gay became the first black woman writer employed by Marvel. In an interview with the New York Times, Gay said, "The opportunity to write black women and queer black women into the Marvel universe, there's no saying no to that."
Gay is creating the much-anticipated World of Wakanda series, which is set in a fictional African country, with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. As women gain increased representation in comics, there is a similar demand for greater diversity across identities and bodies—from people of color, to disabled and transgender individuals. At the Women of Color in Comics panel on Sunday at NYCC, cartoonist Barbara Brandon-Croft addressed an audience along with other female comic artists of color. Brandon-Croft explained that she is the first African American woman to be nationally syndicated in a newspaper. Her comic, Where I'm Coming From, ran from the 80s until 2005, and depicted simple moments in black women's lives, as well as the issues they face—from the importance of voting as a black woman, to racism in the film industry.
She and the other panelists mused about the difference between diversity and representation, while audience members raised concerns about the lack of relatable characters in mainstream comics. Visibility, one panelist said, is the most important thing. The fantasy that white, straight men represent the general reader's worldview is no longer convincing, and the demands made by both comic fans and creators in that room seemed to mirror something Valencia had said about the importance of having comics as diverse as the people who read them: "Having diverse writers and characters results in better stories."