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Empowering vs. protecting the children

powerpuff girls6Where is the line? When is an image empowering, and when is it too risque? While the case of the contested variant cover of The Powerpuff Girls #6 has a lot of silly aspects, its core speaks to larger issues the comic book industry has been wrestling with of late, and may find itself wrestling with even more. The questions it raises aren’t always easy to answer — as is so often the case, the devil is in the details.

All-ages comics have a larger presence now than they have in decades. Every month, tie-ins to popular kids’ shows and original books suitable for readers are released in high enough numbers that you could open a comic book store that’s just for kids. Many stores have increased their kids sections, and with events like Free Comic Book Day, it’s easier for those shops to prove themselves to parents as a safe place. Meanwhile, awareness of the industry’s female readership has never been higher; in October, digital comics platform comiXology released some startlingly specific data: Its average female reader is “17-26 years old, college-educated, lives in the suburbs, and is new to comics. She prefers Tumblr to Reddit. She may have never even picked up a print comic.” In six years, female readership on comiXology increased from less than 5 percent to 20 percent.

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Quote of the Day | ‘Let’s steer into the curve’

bitch planet“No one gets to have their cake and eat it too. So I don’t get to talk about the problems with the lack of diversity in both the books we put out and the creators behind them, I don’t get to speak up about that and then not have my gender brought up as an issue as well. … People will often apologize when they ask me about feminist issues in the industry, and it’s tough. I don’t want them to apologize. These are things that need to be discussed. … My husband’s [comics writer Matt Fraction] gender never comes up in an interview. I think it’s a thing that, if we want it to get better, we have to talk about it. It’s on the table whether we like it or not, so let’s go ahead and – if it’s there, let’s sit down and feast.

I’ve been accused of putting forth sort of an agenda in Captain Marvel, which I actually don’t think I’m doing at all. I think I’ve been very true to what the character was created for, the roots of the character that I had nothing to do with. I was 7 years old when that character’s first book came out under Ms. Marvel. I’ve been accused of putting forth an agenda and so on and so forth. There’s a certain part of me that’s just like, ‘If I’m going to take the heat for it, well … let’s do it then. Let’s steer into the curve.’”

– writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, discussing Bitch Planet, Captain Marvel and feminism

Comics A.M. | Judge rules Sherlock Holmes is in public domain

Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon #4

Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon #4

Legal | In a decision that will undoubtedly usher in more Holmes and Watson novels, comic books, movies and television, a federal judge has issued a declarative judgment that the elements included in the 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published by Arthur Conan Doyle before Jan. 1, 1923 are in the public domain in the United States. That means creators are free to use the characters and elements from those stories (but not from the 10 published after 1923) without paying a licensing fee to the protective Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Ltd.

The ruling came as a result of a lawsuit filed early this year by Leslie Klinger, who served as an adviser on director Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes films and with Laurie R. King edited In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of new stories written by different authors. Although Klinger and King had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection, their publisher received a letter from the Conan Doyle estate demanding another fee; in response, Klinger sued. [The New York Times]

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On sexual harassment and bad behavior in general

MariNaomi2MariNaomi’s first-person testimony of being sexually harassed onstage during a convention panel made the rounds of the comics blogsphere Thursday like lightning. Heidi MacDonald wrote about it at The Beat, and shortly afterward veteran writer Scott Lobdell outed himself as the person MariNaomi was talking about and publicly apologized. Usually when Heidi speaks on an issue like this, I don’t have much to add, but what struck me about the incident is that it’s a textbook case of something that happens to women all the time, and that many men, even those of good will, don’t always understand.

Sexual harassment is a difficult topic, and sometimes we tie ourselves up in knots trying to define and discuss it. But in MariNaomi’s account of the panel, it was very clear: Her harasser wasn’t just making some crude sexual jokes, he was ignoring what MariNaomi was saying and drawing attention away from it by focusing on her sexuality as a woman. He was denying everything about her except one aspect, her sexual attractiveness. That’s what sexual harassment is about.

It’s not necessarily about trying to pick up someone; that happens between consenting adults all the time. It’s not about dirty jokes, either. In context, with the right people, those can be fine.

It’s about not regarding women as full, complete people on an equal footing with men. It’s about not listening to what a woman has to say and focusing instead on her physical attributes. Pickup lines and dirty jokes are just the tools a sexual harasser uses to do the real job: belittling the other person.

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Quote of the Day | Sage Stossel on female superheroes

004_starling“It surprised me that outdated norms like those could still persist — especially in the cartooning world, since I think of cartoonists (at least the ones I know!) as exceptionally nice, sensitive people. I suspect there may be big-picture reasons for it — entrenched theories about what the comic book fan market is looking for, or maybe mainstream publishing houses still dominated by people or attitudes from an older era. But it’s hard to imagine that a concerted effort to make the comics world’s female characters more substantive and realistic wouldn’t pay off for male and female readers alike, making for richer, more interesting stories, and ultimately benefiting publishers’ bottom lines.”

Sage Stossel, talking with Hero Complex about her new graphic novel Starling.

Stossel wrote the story because she was interested in the double-life aspect of being a superhero; her lead character is a working woman who has to deal with real-life problems in addition to fighting crime. After the first draft was done, Stossel, who was not a regular superhero comics reader, started researching other comics to see how her story would fit into the market. “It was at that point that I became keenly aware both of how two-dimensionally, and often demeaningly, women are depicted in many mainstream comics, and also of growing efforts on the part of some fans and creators to reverse those tendencies,” she said. In the graphic novel, Starling chooses a practical uniform, dismissing the other choices with “Who’s your costume designer? A 13-year-old boy?”

Ryan Estrada launches new pay-what-you-want Kickstarter

Broken Telephone

Last year, Ryan Estrada came up with a cool idea: a pay-what-you-want Kickstarter. Anyone who pledged at least a dollar received the winter 2013 edition of The Whole Story, a bundle of four digital comics, each of which was a complete story. It went over pretty well, blasting right past its initial goal of $2,500 to a total of more than $40,000 — including 750 backers at that $1 or more level. (Estrada, being no fool, did add some enticements to pledge at higher levels.)

Now he’s back with another Kickstarter with an even cooler concept: Broken Telephone, a series of 18 independent yet interconnected comics. Here, let’s let Estrada explain:

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Quote of the Day | Alex de Campi on writing exploitation horror

Bee Vixens from Mars“There was a very fine line to walk, though. To create a book that Comic Book Guy could enjoy because wa-hey, boobies and gore … but that also as a female writer (and a feminist) I could be OK with. Most people won’t notice that the gaze in the book towards the female characters is not predatory — the women are complicit, and in fact usually in charge. It’s a gossamer thing, this manipulation of gaze, this slight change, this look awry — but it makes a huge difference to how the book feels when you read it. The book makes people really happy. And, you know, for the horror crowd, the little changes in having a woman write it so some of the invasive, penetrative horror happens to men — well, it makes for more effective and unexpected horror.”

– writer Alex de Campi, talking with ThinkProgress about her new series Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight, a gleefully trashy exploitation comic the describes “straight-up tits and gore, the way nature (and Russ Meyer) intended.”

Nonetheless, De Campi, whose work ranges from the action thriller Ashes to the all-ages Kat and Mouse and My Little Pony, approaches her work in a thoughtful way. In the same interview, she discusses how changing the point of view of a rape scene radically alters it. De Campi’s work illustrates the point that bringing diversity into comics can greatly improve the stories, by introducing fresh and original perspectives — and even surprising the reader.

Comics A.M. | North Carolina convention war brewing?

NC Comicon

NC Comicon

Conventions | Brian Howe looks at the rivalry between Comic Book City Con, which debuted two weekends ago in Greensboro, North Carolina, and NC Comicon, which returns Saturday in Durham. The latter, which is now co-owned by artist Tommy Lee Edwards, drew 4,000 attendees last year (its first at the Durham Convention Center), and this year doubled its exhibit space and ramped up its programming. The conflict, which manifested in a flier for Comic Book City Con that one party considers playful but the other calls “bullying,” seems to be rooted in the proximity of the dates and a perceived lack of communication. However, it’s not simply a rivalry between nearby conventions; it’s one between retailers: Durham’s Ultimate Comics organizes NC Comicon, while Greensboro’s Acme Comics operates Comic Book City Con. [Indy Week]

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Comics A.M. | NARR8 claims motion comics boost reader retention

womainincomics_r6

Comics | Tierney Sneed went to the Women in Comics panel at New York Comic Con and then hit the floor to talk to creators (and also yours truly) about the mismatch between the number of women comics readers and the industries that cater to them, including the publishers and cons like NYCC (where women made up 35% of attendees but only 6% of guests). [U.S. News & World Report]

Digital Comics | I interviewed Darya Trushkina, vice president for business development of NARR8, a digital comics app that features motion comics with some gamelike features. Here’s what caught my attention: When I asked her why they went with motion comics, she said “It boosts our retention rate and boosts usage significantly.” Their retention rate—readers who return to the app—is 50%, and the average session is 15 minutes. [Good E-Reader]

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Women in Refrigerators: more powerful than Slashdot and 4chan

mental flossIt’s been more than 14 years since a then-unknown Gail Simone and friends launched Women in Refrigerators, a website that attempted to catalog the female characters in superhero comics who have been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease” or otherwise suffered “life-derailing tragedies.” The list sparked reflection and debate, and ingrained the phrase “women in refrigerators” into the comic-book lexicon, and even beyond (it’s a reference to the grisly fate of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex DeWitt).

The website was, without a doubt, critical to fostering important discussion about the treatment of female characters, but just how influential, how powerful, is Women in Refrigerators? More powerful that Yelp, Slashdot or 4chan, it turns out, and (at No. 3) only slightly less powerful than Amazon.

That’s according to the November issue of the trivia/entertainment magazine Mental Floss, which has released its list of the “25 Most Powerful Websites” (see the entry below). Any list of that kind is, naturally, subjective, and Mental Floss‘ definition of “powerful” is especially nebulous. “[T]o us, powerful isn’t just about computations,” the magazine states, explaining the exclusion of Google, “it’s about changing what we eat, how we vote, and the ways we kill time at the office.”

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Comics A.M. | Ignatz ceremony celebrates women cartoonists

Ignatz Awards

Ignatz Awards

Awards | All the presenters for last weekend’s Ignatz Awards ceremony were women, and that was no accident: This year’s host, New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly, explains, “More and more of us are now in the business, unlike previous years, and I wanted to celebrate that fact by bringing attention to it.” [Comic Riffs]

Creators | Tom Spurgeon has an in-depth interview with experimental cartoonist Warren Craghead. [The Comics Reporter]

Creators | Stan Lee, in town for Wizard World Ohio Comic Con, chats with reporter Michael Grossberg about superheroes as modern fairy tales. [The Columbus Dispatch]

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Jeremy Whitley on the relaunch of ‘Princeless’

Princeless 1Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless is the story readers they want: a kid-friendly tale of a strong girl who defies authority and has swashbuckling adventures. Centering on Adrienne, a princess who breaks out of her tower, befriends the dragon who is supposed to be guarding her, and heads off to rescue her sister princesses, it’s funny and well written, and it was nominated for two Eisner Awards, best publication for kids (8-12) and best single issue (for Issue 3, which sends up superheroine costumes). Yet its small-press origins and limited distribution meant that it took a while to reach its audience.

Now publisher Action Lab comics is reissuing Princeless, first in single-issue format (starting with Issue 1), and then with a new Vol. 1. After that, the publisher will focus on new content. I spoke with Whitley, who also handles publicity for Action Labs, about why he wrote Princeless and why he is reissuing the series. (Jeremy’s essay on women and comics is also well worth a read.)

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Quote of the Day | Paul Cornell on where the diversity is

carol corps“In the past, comics companies have tended to suggest diversity should ‘happen naturally,’ as if when you leave a comic book open overnight gay men might grow in the pages like mustard and cress, so it’s great that Marvel are now championing it, doing it deliberately. Because that’s the only way it can be done. Jeanine’s [Schaefer, his editor on Wolverine] a force for change. And there are a number of prominent female editors now who are altering the face of pro comics culture pretty swiftly.

Online comics fandom, meanwhile, if you judge solely by the comics message boards, remains conservative and behind the times. The action is to be found on Tumblr, where the Carol Corps lives.”

– writer Paul Cornell, who adheres to a strict “panel parity” rule at conventions (he won’t appear on all-male panels), talking to the New Statesman about embracing political issues in mainstream comic books

(Carol Corps ID card from PsychoAndy)

The leaders aren’t leading

batman-and-ironmanAfter the last week or so of “We don’t publish comics for kids” and “[Depicting rape] is the same as, like, a decapitation” and “comics follow society, they don’t lead society,” among other chestnuts, I’ve been thinking about the mentality and philosophy that produces those positions, and how it reflects on the state of comics.

Reading those quotes in a vacuum, you would think the last 10 to 20 years of progress in comics never happened. They did, of course; it’s just not easy to tell sometimes.

All of the creators involved in the unfortunate remarks come from the so-called “mainstream” of comic books. While Todd McFarlane and Mark Miller are more well-known for their creator-owned comics, they still play within the superhero genre primarily defined by DC and Marvel comics to the majority of the populace. They may not be actively steering mainstream comics these days, but many of the actions of those that do reinforce the same disappointing opinions. There are plenty of beacons of hope in nearly every other sector of the industry, and even a scattered few pinpricks of light within the superhero mainstream, but the makers of our highest-profile genre are still holding back the slowly improving public perception of comic books.

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Comics A.M. | Retailers high on Image, ‘Saga’ & creator-owned

Saga, Vol. 2

Saga, Vol. 2

Retailing | Publishers Weekly’s annual comics retailer survey yields some interesting commentary, although the sample size is small (just 10 stores): Sales are up, retailers are optimistic, and Saga is the hot book right now. Also, booksellers who underestimated the demand for Chris Ware’s Building Stories lost out to direct-market retailers who didn’t, making for some nice extra sales during the holiday season. And while readers seem to be getting tired of the Big Two and their event comics, they are more enthusiastic than ever before about creator-owned comics, and Image is doing quite well. [Publishers Weekly]

Awards | Ladies Making Comics presents the complete list of women Eisner nominees for this year, noting that women have been nominated in almost every category. [Ladies Making Comics]

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