Disturbing news for the comics industry from Newsarama: "comics and graphic novel sales are down 22.91% compared [with] January 2010." Although the SFX Weekender's Saturday panel "Beyond the US: the wider world of comics" was ostensibly devoted to a discussion about "what's going on outside of the big US comics publishers," the conversation inevitably turned internal. Why are US and UK audiences so devoted to US superhero franchises? What's wrong with the comics industry in the UK that readers don't seem interested in the higher-concept stuff?
We're fortunate to have our guest editor Den Patrick on tap for the inside scoop. Den confronted these issues and more alongside the other panel members - Tony Lee, Bryan Talbot and Pat Mills - so I'm going to leave the afterword to him.
The issue of female readers reared its ugly head a number of times during the discussion. Why aren't there more comics written by women, drawn by women and read by women? What is the deal with girls, yo?
Well, Pat Mills has a thought. Publishers won't publish stuff women want to read! You see, he knows a woman who wrote a comic for women, "kind of a British Sex and the City," which hasn't been able to find a publisher. But it's awesome! It's all about these "women who are a couple of steps down from a hooker. Not hookers, but close."
Yes, why don't women read comics? The answers are right there in Mills' offhand remark. His casual, fatuous, slut-shaming sexism is indicative of a comics industry for which women are an unconditionally alien species, mystifying weirdos with desires and interests so totally foreign to normal comics readers (men) as to be utterly and perpetually unfathomable. For male comics professionals to try to figure out what women want out of comics would be not simply absurd but impossible, and any attempt would result in a category error of the first degree.
It's no secret that the comics industry struggles with attracting and maintaining female readers. But the problem is not because there aren't enough comics by women for women.
There aren't enough comics by women, it's absolutely true. I suspect that has a lot to do with the fact that the publishing industry full stop seems to have a bit of a problem when it comes to representing women, as this dispiriting article illustrates. (And as Jared mentioned in his writeup of the unsung SFX Weekender heroes, neither has our specifically geeky little corner of that world sorted out its problems with gender disparity.)
Women are not avoiding comics because there aren't enough comics for women, either. Survey female comics readers and you'll find they enjoy much the same material as their male counterparts. The problem simply is not that women want entirely different comics than men.
So why aren't more women reading comics? It's a complicated question with complicated answers. I submit that part of the problem lies in accessibility. Comic stores are massively unfriendly places for women, particularly young women - shops filled with owl-eyed men and posters of Vampirella don't do much to negate the feeling that one is unwelcome and unwanted. Internet access and digital technology may go a long way towards getting and keeping a female comics audience because they allow girls to buy comics without the distressing sense of being an intruder. I appreciate that there are real and significant issues tied up with producing and selling comics online, but the internet isn't likely to go away anytime soon. Rather than brandishing crucifixes and holy water, I suggest that the comics industry veterans embrace the digital world's capacity to reach a large and ever-increasing new audience of both men and women.
The veterans in the comics industry have another task. There simply aren't very many women in comics. Maintaining a female audience for life might, however, go a long way toward producing a base of female creators. I don't know, but I suspect that most comics creators begin as comics fans. Keeping female fans might, in theory, lead to more women wanting to break into the industry: young women who start by doodling Wolverine on their school binders, move on to penning fan-ficcy scripts, and eventually wind up applying for internships with an eye towards getting permanent jobs as authors, illustrators, editors, letterers, and colorists. Young women who never abandon their comics fandoms thanks to an increasing sense of alienation, the niggling suspicion that they're intruding in an all-boys club that has not, does not and will never want them.
And keeping female fans means, in part, that well-known comics professionals maybe ought to avoid saying stupid sexist shit in public.