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Marvel Editors Discuss Women in Comics and the Lack of Female-Led Titles [Interview]


Both Marvel and DC Comics have been at the center of concerns and controversies recently regarding women in comics, both in terms of the way they are represented on the page and in the offices of the Big Two comics publishers. While DC Comics has quite a few ongoing titles devoted to female characters (Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Catwoman Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Voodoo), there are very few women actually involved in creating them, an issue that has infused criticism of the company’s relaunch since the beginning, and was recently compounded by the news that writer Gail Simone is leaving Firestorm.

Marvel Comics, meanwhile, seems to have the opposite problem; with the recent cancellation of X-23, there are no female-led ongoings in the Marvel Universe (with the possible exception of the 12-issue miniseries The Fearless) but significantly more women working in creative and editorial roles. The two companies illustrate two different but interrelated problems: the lack of women playing major roles in the comics, and the lack of women playing major roles in creating them. While neither situation is ideal, what are the implications of both problems, and which has a bigger impact on the comics that are created or the audience they reach?

ComicsAlliance reached out to both Marvel and DC Comics, and while DC declined to discuss the issue, Marvel gave us access to both Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso and Editor Jeanine Schaefer, who also worked as the lead editor for Marvel’s Girl Comics anthology and oversaw the Women of Marvel initiative. They spoke frankly about the reasons behind the lack of female-led titles, what it means, and what they want for the future of women at Marvel.ComicsAlliance: Is the current lack of solo titles for female characters purely based on the performance of previous and current titles, or are other factors in play? What do you think is the significance of this absence, and how did it come about?

Jeanine Schaefer: Sales. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but in the end it all comes down to sales and perceived interest. Now more than ever, we’re in a time where people who buy superhero comics are sticking with things that, in their eyes, “count.” And that means the “big books”: Avengers, Cap, Spidey and X-Men, for example. Many of the smaller titles are suffering because of that, not just the ones starring women. It just stands out more when it’s a female-lead book because there aren’t enough of them.

Axel Alonso: Yes, the current market is very difficult. We’ve seen a lot of our mid-list titles take a dip: Daken, X-23 and Black Panther have all been casualties. Is it the last we’ve seen of these characters? Absolutely not. Could we see them anchor new series in the near-future? Of course. It all depends on timing and execution.

CA: Why do you think it is more difficult for female-helmed titles to find direct market support and connect with the existing audience (or reach a new one)? Is it just as simple as having a primarily male readership, or is there more going on?

JS: I’m not sure if men are generally less inclined to buy a solo female title, or a female team book, and I refuse to believe that it’s purely because of a woman being in the lead role that a book won’t sell. There have been books that have had great runs, as well as books that have had a lot of fan support and word of mouth — Spider-Girl, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, X-23 and across town, [DC's] Birds of Prey, Batgirl and Batwoman, to name a few.

AA: I don’t think the hardcore fan looks at X-23 or She-Hulk or Wonder Woman as being the comic book equivalent of “chick lit” — just super hero books featuring female leads. The problem, I think, is that there are so few of our female characters have achieved the iconic status that translates into sure-fire sales. While Sue Storm and Ororo Monroe have high Q-ratings due to their roles in iconic monthlies — Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men, respectively — they function as parts of an ensemble cast. They enjoy big fan bases, but don’t have the mojo that can maintain a solo monthly title. Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine, Hulk — those characters have anchored monthly titles for decades. It’s a prohibitive competitive advantage for the men. Does it mean, we’ll stop trying to publish titles featuring female leads? Absolutely not.

CA: When super heroine solo titles DO succeed, what do you think sets those books apart?

AA: Execution and high concept. X-23′s association with Wolverine certainly didn’t hurt her, but it was the details that Craig Kyle and Chris Yost brought to her origin story that got readers’ attention, and Marjorie Liu’s ability to build on that story that lead to some 31 issues worth of content and a character who’s become a viable member of X-Force and Avengers Academy.

JS: Looking at the titles I just listed, almost all of them sprung from a family of characters. And I don’t think it proves that only female characters that are male derivatives will sell; rather I think it proves that what a book needs to succeed, especially a single-character driven one, is a launching pad. Whether that’s a family of characters she can break away from, a storyline she can spin out of, or an event she’s pivotal in. Then comes the harder stuff, like actually having the passion and the drive to make that character fresh and exciting every single month, to make that book continue to “count.”

CA: What kind of male/female breakdown does the staff have at Marvel? How do you think that the gender diversity of staff — in both creative and editorial roles — affects the way comics are made and whom they appeal to?

AA: I have sixteen editors on my staff, four of whom are female: Jeanine Schaefer, Sana Amanat, Lauren Sankovitch and Ellie Pyle. I think that gender diversity affects content the same way that ethnic diversity does – subtly. Editors are paid for their literacy, taste and judgment. Who they are shapes what they edit.

JS: With the monthly staff and collected editions combined, there are 21 editors, 5 of us women. And that’s just editorial. But the minute you look at the rest of the company, the gender breakdown is pretty much 50/50. Digital is hugely women; production is almost all women, plus all the women in legal, brand assurance, accounting, creative services, human resources and licensing, etc. There are women in almost every division.

In following the discourse about women and minorities in comics, the one thing I see brought up so often is the idea that people don’t see gender. “Oh, I don’t see gender,” they say, “I just want good stories.” There’s an idea that actively looking to hire women is counter-intuitive to good stories; the simplified version of this is “hire good writers, regardless of gender.” Of course, I agree that the people we hire need to be good at this, first and foremost. But what this argument misses, in implying (and sometimes outright stating) that actively hiring people with different life-experiences is somehow creatively bereft, is that having a variety of viewpoints is the best way to not only tell better stories, but to grow your market, so that you can continue to tell those stories.

On a totally practical level, being a woman there are things that I will be more attuned to than one of my male colleagues, and vice versa. So I always feel like I’m learning and growing as an editor and as a story-teller the longer I work here, because it forces me out of my head. A room with a group of people who are all passionate about different things with a shared goal of finding the perfect intersection of those passions is my kind of writers’ room!

Not all women are going to agree on what stories they like. Just like not all men will. Or all minorities. But having different voices gives us a well-rounded group of books that speak to a variety of people; without it, it’s akin to someone talking to himself and in this particular economy, that will spell our doom.

CA: In a similar vein, which do you think has more impact on whether a comic is more accessible to female readers: having more women involved in the making of a comic, or having more women playing significant (or starring) roles in a comic? How are they different?

AA: Forced to choose, I’d lean toward the former: Having more women involved in the making of a comic. But only because I think a diverse editorial staff creates diverse material. Truth be told, I don’t think that there is sure-fire strategy for wooing a female audience, and, with the exception of an initiative like Girl Comics, I think it’s far better to assemble a diverse staff of editors and talent, just do your best to tell good stories, and let the audience form of its own accord. Is Black Panther an outreach book to African Americans, or a comic book featuring a badass super hero who happens to be from Africa? The latter. Same thing applies to X-23.

JS: I honestly don’t think that one is objectively better than the other, because they’re both integral. They’re integral to making good comics, period, but even more so in terms of accessibility for female readers.

Varied points of view are not only going to get you better books, they’re going to appeal to a wider range of readers — and women, as I said before, are going to have a different life-experience than men, one that will influence the kinds of stories they want to tell, and the kinds of characters they tap into. And I can’t stress enough the value, as a woman, of seeing a woman’s name on a comic (or in the credits of a television show, or on the masthead of a magazine, etc.). When I was a kid, I honestly had no idea who made X-Men comics. I thought they just appeared at Toys R Us through the same sort of magic that made the Bionic Six be on my television every week. As I got older and I realized that actual humans made these, whenever I saw a woman’s name it would get me so jazzed because while I probably wasn’t going to grow up to be an X-Man, it gave me solid proof that I could definitely grow up and make X-Men comics. It makes the entire system, the reading and the making, feel inclusionary.

That said, I loved X-Men comics because I loved the characters, in particular the X-Women, and the relationships they had with each other. And I think that’s a great way to keep women reading, to see women being badasses and having emotional arcs and in general acting like fully-formed human beings. But you don’t need a woman to write good women, you just need writers who care enough about every character they writing to give them all personalities and motivations and backstories. One of my favorite female characters of all time is Trixie from Deadwood, who was created by David Milch. She made good decisions and bad ones, she was by turns selfless and selfish and incredibly self-destructive. Above all, she was a real human being, but Milch never let us forgot that she was a woman, in a time when things were not awesome for women. A deeply flawed woman who couldn’t be defined by what usually makes Strong Female Characters acceptable in pop culture. And while I love Al Swearengen even more than the next guy, and yes, Sol Starr makes me swoon, I kept coming back to Deadwood for Trixie above everyone else.

CA: Jeanine, we’ve spoken in the past about Girl Comics, which not only created stories designed to appeal to women but compiled the work of exclusively female creators. In hindsight, how successful was this project in connecting with either old or new fans, and in of bringing new creators into the fold?

JS: Hm, I’m not sure every story was designed to appeal to women. The package itself, its existence, was designed with the hope that women and girls would pick it up, but like we’ve spoken about, there is no one kind of story that will appeal to all female comics fans. One of the things I love so much about Girl Comics is that there is such a huge range of the types of stories that are in there — horror, mystery, romance, humor, straight-up action, noir, character pieces, etc. It smashes the notion that women write a certain way or a certain thing, that any of these people “writes like a girl.”

We really wanted to bring awareness to the fact that there are so many women working in comics, and we’re not invading anyone’s territory because we’ve been here for so long. When we started up, I saw so many people online asking if we would even be able to find enough women to make three issues, a fantastic bit of snark that stems, I would imagine, from fear. That was a real breakthrough for me, realizing that so much of the backlash against talking about women in comics comes from a fear that everything is going to change – what happens to readers’ favorite books and writers and characters if we change what’s been the status quo for 75 years? But the status quo has always involved women, it’s why we ran the spotlights on women like Marie Severin, Flo Steinberg, Louise Simonson and June Tarpe Mills, to name a few.

I’m not sure that it reached as many people as I would have liked; but I would say the fact that we’re still talking about it, and the fact that women in comics is a topic that people keep coming back around to, is a measure of its success. And the fact that Marvel has been so behind the initiative is so important to me, in both talking about the issue internally and giving the women here a forum to discuss it publicly as official members of the company, I’m reassured that we’re headed in the right direction. I think that readers see that and also appreciate it, and that was a big part of the feedback we got on it.

Also, let’s not brush aside the fact that it’s just an awesome line-up of comic creators, all working together! Rather than the marginalizing series I’ve heard it called, I see it as a powerhouse of talent, and hopefully everyone who read it followed that path to the other work these women have done. In terms of bringing new creators into the fold, every woman who worked on that book was already making their respective livings making comics, and almost all of them have worked for Marvel before, which was also one of the points of the project. And many of the creators continued to have work published at Marvel.

CA: In terms of outreach, do you think that digital comics might be better able to reach different types of readers (including women) than direct market stores? Do you think there’s more potential in the digital space for experimenting with female-friendly titles?

JS: There’s definitely a wider audience that can be reached with digital comics, and one that we’re working on tapping into. Especially for comics/gaming/generally fannish women, the internet is a great way to find like minds , and having the content that brought them together so easily accessible is key to fostering inclusiveness. And it’s that inclusiveness that will eventually break down the wall between women being a minority percentage in the comics-reading audience. I wish that someone would do an actual scientific survey of readers to find out the breakdowns of who’s reading what. I don’t even know how you go about that. There have got to be some comics-loving statisticians out there with a national arts grant, right?

AA: Yes, digital comics is the new news stand. As comics become an impulse buy, our audience broadens and the type of material we publish becomes more diverse. Digital comics will change the way we read comics and make comics. It will definitely affect content.

CA: Should readers expect to see more solo female titles on the horizon from Marvel, or more titles with female writers and artists?

AA: Both. Even though the industry has seen steady growth in the last few months, it’s a challenging time for comics. Indeed, a challenging time for America. But Marvel will continue to do what it has for 70 years. And the bedrock of our success is a diverse publishing plan.

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