Women Are The Changing Face Of Comic Fandom

Lead image: Flickr/Big Planet Comics; embedded images: Wikimedia Commons

This spring, Darci McClary, a former junior high classmate of mine, walked into her local comic store and picked up Guardians of the Galaxy. She fell in love with the characters, the humor in the writing, and the beautiful, intricate artwork. McClary, a North Carolina nurse, is 36, and Guardians was her first-ever comic book.

“I’ve always enjoyed Marvel superhero movies and anxiously awaited all the sequels,” she said. “Finally, it occurred to me that I could read the comics that the movies were based on in between movie installments. It hadn’t occurred to me to get into comics any earlier.”

She’s not alone — comic readership among women seems to be on the rise.

In 2013, during a panel promoting PBS’s docu-series Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, a few major comic book creators were asked why comics focus so little on women and minorities. Gerry Conway, one of the creators behind DC’s character the Punisher, responded by saying that readers aren’t interested in female or minority characters. Todd MacFarlane, who created Spawn for Image Comics, said that he wouldn’t steer his own two daughters toward comics because the industry is “testosterone-driven.” The next year, David Goyer, the screenwriter behind several of DC’s films, including the upcoming Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, suggested on the Scriptnotes podcast that Marvel’s character She-Hulk (who was starring in her own comic book, a Ally McBeal-esque legal procedural, at the time) was created as part of a male power fantasy, referring to her as a “giant green porn star.”

The message: comics aren’t for you, ladies, and they never have been. They’re made for men, by men, and tell men’s stories.

Textless cover of She-Hulk Volume 2
Textless cover of She-Hulk Volume 2

The demographics of comic readers are still largely unreported. But the stats that do exist are promising. A 2011 survey from DC Comics reported that their readers were overwhelmingly male — yet other sites tell a different story. In 2013, digital comic store Comixology discovered via a customer survey that 20% of their new buyers were women, up from 5% when the app launched in 2009.

Graphic Policy, a site run by comic fan and political consultant Brett Schenker, checks the demographics of comic fans monthly, using data from Facebook. That site finds that nearly half of comic fans — about 44 to 45%, depending on the month — are women of all ages.

“These aren’t necessarily comic buyers, but these are people who say they have an interest in comics. This is what the market could be . . . and really should be,” said Schenker in an interview.

The numbers are murky when it comes to documenting middle-aged female comics fans, but anecdotal evidence suggests an increase in the number of over-30 women who are getting into comics.

Some are childhood fans who are just now returning to the stories they once loved, like Jennifer Caluori, of Connecticut. She loved comics as a child, but was pushed away from them as a teen. Now, at 34, Caluori, an assistant director at a storage facility, is coming back into her own.

“When I was younger, in high school, I stopped doing a lot of the nerdyish things I enjoyed for fear of being made fun of or bullied. I always thought it was easier to pretend to like the ‘cool’ things kids were into because it was easier to be liked than being me,” she said.

When I started researching this article, I put out a call for women who liked comics on social media. Nearly 20 women responded, and I spoke to some of them through online messages, over the phone, and in person. Some of those reported that they had always seen comics as “kid stuff,” or “for boys,” or “not for me.”

One woman said she’d no sooner have picked up a comic book than she would have picked up an issue of Playboy. But those women are now revising their opinions, thanks to friends, significant others, and other media that ties in with comics.

Many, like McClary, are fans of movies based on comics. Business Insider last year published an article which suggested that a recent boom in comic book sales is at least partially a result of interest from fans who’ve loved film adaptations, and that films have brought in more women fans.

Both Marvel and DC have been releasing films for a long time, but recently both companies have released an onslaught of comic-related films and television series. In 2015, four comic-related movies were launched (a slow year, when you consider that eight comic films were released in 2014, eight are planned for 2016, and seven are planned for 2017). In the last year, three new Marvel television series were launched, and four new T.V. shows were launched by DC.

Also bringing in new female fans are an expanding selection of comic books featuring female heroes; at New York Comic Con’s Women of Marvel panel this October, the panelists pointed out that five years ago, Marvel had no female-led titles. Now there are 17 titles with ladies in the lead, including some well-publicized ones: the new female Thor, which was announced on The View last year, and Ms. Marvel, whose 2014 debut was covered by the Washington Post’s Style section.

Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel

It was Ms. Marvel that brought Jen Cook, 45, of Connecticut, back to comics, although to be fair, Cook has been interested in comics for years. But Ms. Marvel, a comic about a Muslim 16-year-old girl with superpowers, appealed to Cook. So did the fact that the comic started with a well-publicized Issue #1 in 2014. She could start at the beginning, without years of backstory to worry about.

“It was Ms. Marvel that got me to have a pull list,” said Cook.

For the uninitiated, a pull list is a list of books a comic shop orders, pulls, and keeps aside for you.

The fact that there is a separate term for what is, essentially, a subscription, is one of the reasons the Byzantine world of comics seems forbidding to people who have grown up outside of it. There are many such terms: a story is an arc, one comic that tells a complete story is a one-shot, a splash page is a large illustration that opens a story.

“I found getting into comics intimidating. It’s hard to know where to start; there’s a lot of jargon and many different iterations of characters. Talking to the guys in the comic shop helped with all that,” said McClary. “Internet research was useless because people who post info about comics, at least the stuff I found, were assuming an informed audience.”

And comics shops have not always been so inviting to newcomers. Women in particular have often felt unwelcome there.

“There is still a weird vibe when a woman walks into a comic shop. I have experienced it,” said Stephanie Bernstein Pollard, 36, of London. “The people who work there are usually men and tend to think women don’t know what they’re looking for, or are just picking up something for a guy. It’s changing, but slowly.”

Catherine Laughlin, 45, a Connecticut-based pastry chef, reads comics given or loaned to her by her friends. She finds the idea of going into a comics store daunting.

“There’s still sort of this scary aura of going into a comic book store and having people who are really, really familiar with the genre, and me going in with very little experience,” she said.

Jen Cook’s story is a familiar one to grown female comic fans: she read her brother’s comics as a child, and when she was old enough, decided to pick up her own. But it was hard to buy those books, and to keep up with them, until she found comic shops that welcomed her — and that didn’t happen until she was in her 30s.

“You’d get the look,” said Cook, discussing some of her early experiences with comic shops. “You know the look. And the look was always, ‘You’re a girl.’”

When Graphic Policy founder Brett Schenker began his “Demo-Graphic” feature in 2011, it was a “crazy idea” to suggest that women were comic fans. At the time, there was very little data about the size of the comic market, and about who, exactly, fans were.

“You can’t really get this data out of the current comic market,” said Schenker.

“The publisher sells to a distributor, the distributor sells to the comic store, the store sells to the customer. There’s not a feedback loop to get back info how much is being sold in stores, let alone who those customers are. The data doesn’t exist.”

Facebook, which collects data on its users, is a goldmine for those who know how to leverage it, and Schenker put his political number-crunching skills to use. Every month, he uses about 140 search terms to get demographic information from Facebook’s advertising platform. He searches for terms like the names of comic publishers, “comics,” “graphic novels,” and comic-specific terms, like “one-shot.” (He avoids using the names of characters or of creators.)

“What’s great is if you put in a term, Facebook suggests others, so you know if you’re on the right track,” he said.”If you put in ‘Marvel Entertainment,’ you get movie-related terms. If you put in ‘Marvel Comics,’ you get comic-related terms.”

Schenker publishes his findings on the first of every month, breaking comic fans down by gender, age, marital status, and race, with special reports on different publishers and fandoms.

The numbers are interesting, showing not only overall growth in the Facebook users who like comics, but an increase in the percentage of women who like comics. While the percentage of younger female comic fans has lingered around 50%, the number of older female fans has changed.

Let’s take the 38–41 year-old age group: according to Schenker’s reports, the number of females in this age group who like comics rose from 28% in 2012, to 46% in 2013, to 49% in 2014. This year, the number has dipped, hovering around 44%.

Those are the numbers that stood out to me, but Schenker warns that we should take such comparisons with a grain of salt. Facebook’s algorithm changed in spring of 2014, he says, and comparing numbers from 2012 with numbers from this year may not be fair. The data for older comic readers is also skewed, says Schenker. After all, older Facebook users tend to be female, so the percentage of women liking comics are higher than for their male counterparts. (Case in point: almost 70% of comic fans age 60 and older were women in August of this year.)

Even if the numbers are muddied by a changing algorithm, there is something we should take from the data: women — many women — are comic fans.

“I think the big takeaway is that women are comic fans,” said Schenker. “This is hard data; there’s no denying that it exists.”

And that is true. Despite an infusion of more recent fans, women are not new to comics. Several women over the age of 40 responded to my request for interviews by saying that they’ve been reading comics since childhood. One counted her longboxes among her prized possessions. Another read comics to her son when he was in the womb. (That son is now a grown man.) Others have been reading graphic novels — like Maus and American Splendor — for 30 years.

Their message was clear: despite the myth of the teenage male comic reader, we have been here all along.

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