Women in Comics -Then & Now

Since its early beginnings, the history of female professionals within comics has been a tumultuous one. Women writers and artists have played an integral part in the industry, yet received little fanfare. Regrettably most of the early female pioneers have been largely forgotten. Yet the contribution from women was immense, particularly in how often their work included gender politics and social issues – themes that are still prevalent in the industry today.

Kewpies were created by America's first female cartoonist, Rose O'Neil

Kewpies were created by America’s first female cartoonist, Rose O’Neil

Rose O’Neill, became the first female US comic strip artist in 1896 with “The Old Subscriber Calls,” just one year after the début of The Yellow Kid, commonly regarded as the first US comic. In 1910 Rose found lasting fame with her creation of the Kewpies. Grace Drayton, created the whimsical Campbell Soup Kids in 1904.  Jackie Ormes, the first African American female cartoonist, created Torchy Brown in 1937. Torchy presented an image of a black woman who, in contrast to the stereotypical media portrayals of the time, was confident, intelligent, and brave.  Dale Messick creator of Brenda Starr, Reporter in 1940 was a rarity in the world of comics; with a strong female lead and a female-dominated creative team. Trina Robbins, 1960s underground comics pioneer, historian and co-founder of Wominn’s Comix drew Wonder Woman beginning in 1986. Robbins often tours the lecture circuit speaking on the contributions of women in comics and educates the new generation of its rich history.

The evolution begins

By the 1980’s and 1990’s comics introduced several strong female lead characters. Yet they were still written by and for a predominately male audience. Tired of the “hyper-sexualization” of female characters in comics, hundreds of articles and panels over the years discussed how change was not only needed but necessary in order for comics to evolve and reflect its growing audience.  The Hawkeye Initiative – created to poke fun at the industry also pointed out how ridiculously posed female characters are drawn in comparison to their male counterparts.

www.hawkeyeinitiative.com All characters © of Marvel and DC Comics

original artwork from hawkeyeinitiative.com

This year has seen a lot of focus placed on gender in comics, with numerous female-centric books receiving high profile launches and loyal fan bases popping up to support them. The increased importance fandom has placed on gender was incredibly apparent at the Gender in Comics panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. It quickly went over capacity having hundreds of people show up.

Louise Simonson has been an author and comic book writer for 40 years.  Her recent appearance at the Women of Marvel Comics Panel at Comic-Con International, encouraged aspiring women creators to hone their craft and network for opportunities.

Louise Simonson stands next to her original Rose O'Neil art piece. Photo by W. Simonson

Louise Simonson stands next to her original Rose O’Neil art piece.
Photo by W. Simonson

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Today we see a number of notable new faces leaving their mark on the industry.  From mainstream favorites like, Gail Simone, (Red Sonja) Kelley Sue DeConnick, (Ms. Marvel) Amanda Conner, (Power Girl) Colleen Doran, (Sandman) Adriana Melo (Star Wars) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis). The past decade has seen a significant shift in the once predominately male based genre.  Eisner winner, Becky Cloonan became the first female artist to draw Batman in the series’ 72 year history. Cloonan states, “Having more girls create is just going to create more stories for more people to enjoy. …That’s why it’s so important to have more women, more people in general, more people of color and people of all ages getting into comics, reading them and then creating them. This is a medium that deserves to be made and to be read and to be enjoyed and celebrated.”

Convergence of Media

San Diego Comic Con International 2013. Photos by A. Caraballo

Comic properties are more visible now than ever in the mainstream, particularly because of a long string of successful film and television adaptations. Networked Insights analyzed more than 3.5 million conversations on social media leading up to this year’s Comic-Con using SocialSense, their marketing decisions platform (which is also used by advertisers, marketers and entertainment companies to analyze what consumers like). The results were staggering with a record 54 percent of women leading the conversation on all things Comic-Con with 46 percent from men.

The study, weighed mostly on information from Twitter, clearly showed that women are interested and engaged in comics, science fiction, and fantasy communities just as much as men. High points from the research are:

  • Women are talking about The X-Files, Marvel’s upcoming TV show, S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Walking Dead most.
  • Overall, Comic-Con fans are most excited about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Divergent, and the Veronica Mars movie.
  • Things being discussed because studios are marketing them aggressively: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Comics as an educational resource

Social media is not the only area, which has seen an increased interest in comics.  Over the past decade, educators have recognized both the artful complexities of comics and their growing popularity among students (particularly women), and have developed programs and practices to use them to foster learning engagement.  On an elementary level, comic books are now being used as a venue to help teachers with students struggling with reading and comprehension. The colorful art, and non-threatening presence present another format that promotes reading. Diamond Book Distributors has helped this endeavor further by creating a Diamond Graphic Novel Common Core List.

For those seeking to pursue comics as a profession, several higher institutions of learning have created extensive programs to acquire Bachelor’s, Master’s, and even PhDs within the field. According to several academics there has been a surge in female students pursuing degrees over the past 6-7 years.

For a list of the leading academic institutions and programs offering a degree in comics click here.

Students at University of Cincinnati review their work AP Photo/Al Behrman

Students at University of Cincinnati review their work
AP Photo/Al Behrman

According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, artists can make a substantial annual sum as a salaried employee and opportunities are limitless as a freelancer.  For information see: Multimedia Artists and Animators, Cartoonist, or Freelance Artist.

There is no question more women are reading comics in general than ever before. Gail Simone, Wonder Woman’s first ongoing female writer in 66 years, got her start with a with a blog she published titled Women in Refrigerators which argued that most female comics superheroes end up “depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.” Simone says she sees a change since she wrote her refrigerator rant over 10 years ago.” At that time, the trend was toward grim stories where female characters were killed,” she says. “We only had a handful of female characters to look up to. Today we’re not seeing those stories so much.”  Recently, Simone succeeded in reviving Wonder Woman to one of the book’s most popular runs to date.

Creating a new standard

With the introduction of web comics’ female writers/artists have been able to publish their works for the masses without the use of traditional comic book editors. Writer Heidi MacDonald discusses her perspective, ” There’ve always been few and far between but very visible women who were successful.  But if you actually look at what’s happened in the last 10 years, with Web comics available and with people able to get their work out there without gatekeepers, there’s so many amazing women, and they’ve been doing great work everywhere.” In fact, six out of the ten top web comics are produced by women. This movement has opened the floodgates to a plethora of new talent, voices and subject matter. Symbolia is the first US Publication dedicated exclusively to comics journalism.  It seeks “to provide an immersive, engaging experience for a new generation of newshounds.”  The project is funded by The International Women’s Media Foundation and stands out as a unique perspective on non-fiction issues of the day.

Other female cartoonists have used comic art as a form of graphic medicine – creating works based on women’s issues such as Pomegranate Tree Group. Based in Canada, (PTG) is collaboration between artists, community organizers, researchers, counselors and lawyers working to support diverse communities through research, education and creative projects.

Women are taking their vision for the industry into their own hands and molding it into a new form. Companies such as Rise Above by Archie Comics co-owner, Nancy Silberkleit uses culturally relevant themes to bring public service announcements to children.

The independent channel of traditional print has also seen a growing success of activists and new female talent. The Latina Power panel at The Latino Comics Expo brings together Latino comics art and the artists who create them together to showcase new projects and workshops to the public.  Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist best known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, came to critical and commercial success in 2006 with her graphic memoir Fun Home.

What is the industry doing to keep up?

In early 2013 Marvel launched its first all-female X-Men title amid great fanfare.  This was quickly followed by DC Comics’ announcement of two new Wonder Woman projects set to release this year.  However, only one of these will star the feminist icon as the lead character; along with an ongoing series based on one of Batman’s leading female villains, Harley Quinn.

However, fans and professionals alike argue that this is not enough. Believing it will take more than an imprint, a few titles, or a few big names. Change must take place within the center of comics — its publishers, industry, medium, and market in creating a new status quo. A change in which new narratives and the voices behind them are recognized and valued both critically and financially as a significant and definitive portion of the comics’ standard: not the marginal, or alternative, but a vital, central component of a diverse whole.

While this may hold true for some, we cannot ignore the lack of representation on a professional level within the industry’s top two publishers.  As seen below independent comic company, BOOM! Studios surpasses both Marvel and DC in terms of female professionals within its ranks.

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What does the recent evolution hold for the future of comics? DC Comics Group Editor Eddie Berganza has been in the industry for over 20 years. Berganza has edited lead titles such as Superman, Batman, Justice League and Green Lantern. Here he explains his perspective on the phenomenon.

* Mr. Berganza’s views are not necessarily those of DC Comics or any of its affiliates

One has to wonder if the elitism of the past prevents women from entering the superhero genre. Yet one needs to look at the larger cultural context to understand this is no longer an issue. However, it is a clear change is in motion, whether the industry embraces it remains to be seen.

Related Articles: Women in Comics: The Fine Line of Equality, Guide to Professional Comics, Wonder Women On and Off Paper, Women in Comics: The Fine Line of Equality – a History, Highlights of San Diego Comic Con 2013

Related Infographics: Comic Con stats

Additional Resources: The Hero Initiative, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, History of the Comic Code Seal



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