The New Wonder Women of Comics

Once only a boys’ club, the world of comic books has drastically changed, as female artists, writers, and editors have risen to prominence. Will readers follow?

Marvel Comics (1,3); DC Comics

When Marvel set out in 2007 to create a collectible statue of Mary Jane, Spider-Man’s girlfriend, they ended up causing a controversy instead. Comic book fans, not known for their restraint in voicing their opinions, railed against the depiction of Mary Jane as a barefooted, generously proportioned nymphet washing her boyfriend’s clothes. The statue seemed like yet another way of saying comic books were strictly a boys’ club.

Click Below to See Our Gallery of Women in Comics, from Gail Simone's Birds of Prey to Spider-Man's Mary Jane.

Three years later, well, we’ve come a long way, baby—mostly. Marvel and DC, the two giants of comic publishing, are embracing female readers. Marvel comics recently launched a new, three-part short anthology series called Girl Comics to celebrate women working in all facets of the industry. Each of the three issues is entirely written, drawn, lettered, and edited by women. “I wanted to show that there are women in every aspect of making comics,” says Jeanine Schaefer, the series’ editor.

DC Comics, meanwhile, lured superstar writer Gail Simone back to helm Birds of Prey, the all-female superhero title that launched Simone to prominence in 2003. Even the smaller presses, such as Dark Horse, an independent publisher, and Yen Press, an imprint of Hachette, are scoring big with adaptations like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight that draw sizeable female fanbases across platforms.

Not that women necessarily need help getting into comics, thanks to the rise of manga—the Japanese-style comics that have traditionally had a female fanbase—and the overall mainstreaming of comic books. “The Internet has made it hugely more acceptable for women to read comics, and many of our best commentators are female,” says Simone. “The numbers of female attendees at conventions has absolutely skyrocketed, and I meet more women aspiring to make comics themselves every year.”

It’s impressive coming from an industry that has had to overcome the boys’ club reputation that has plagued it almost since its inception. If you don’t know what that reputation is, you probably haven’t read “ Women in Refrigerators”, the 1999 essay by Simone. In it, she and other comic fans list all of the female characters “who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator,” Simone wrote at the time, taking her title from the grisly fate of Alexandra DeWitt, girlfriend of the Green Lantern who was iced—both figuratively and literally—to teach the superhero a lesson.

“For many decades, comics (and film, and television) did a relatively poor job of representing female characters (and gays, and minorities) at all,” Simone wrote in an email interview. “So the pool of established, well-liked characters of those types was small to begin with, and having the majority of them be depowered, raped, and mutilated with metronomic frequency was, I think, very alienating.”

“The superhero genre is basically adolescent male power fantasies,” says Karen Berger, executive editor of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. This has unfortunately translated into some troubling storylines for women in superhero titles. A few examples include the Black Cat, whose erratic behavior was explained away by a sexual assault in her past, and Jessica Jones, star of Marvel’s Alias title who gave up costumed crime fighting in lieu of private investigating after, you guessed it, a sexual assault. And, of course, Alexandra DeWitt, the woman in the refrigerator. G. Willow Wilson, writer of DC’s Air and Vixen: Return of the Lion, says that using violence against women as a quick way of establishing a character is a depressing industry practice. “I think it’s a way to get cheap thrills and attract the lowest common denominator. I don’t think putting yourself in such an adversarial position towards half the planet is a good way to get new readers.”

Wilson, who revived the Justice League character of Vixen for a five-issue mini-series in October 2008, said that writing a female superhero came with its own set of baggage. “Because she’s been written primarily by men, primarily for men, and so to shape her into a character more women would empathize with, you’ve gotta wrestle with a lot of her history in previous stories that have been written by men.”

And even when female characters weren’t being slaughtered or assaulted, they still had a tendency to be even more two-dimensional than the boys sharing their panels. “There was a time when there were two kinds of women in these books: simpering airheads or ‘men with tits,’ basically male characters but in spandex stripper outfits, and sans penis,” Simone says.

This increased awareness has left comic book editors feeling like they have to weigh the potential fallout of every plot twist and treat female characters with kid gloves, Schaefer says.“That’s not what any of us want. What I would like to see is more women having their own stories in their own right, and if, in the course of that arc, something bad happens to them, and they have a character arc of ups and downs and fatal flaws in their characters that bring them to a certain point, that is all fair game. As long as it’s not just to service the story of someone else.”

The move to make female comic book characters more vivid extends to the artwork, as well. Rebekah Issacs, the artist for DC’s DV8, says that the industry shift toward photorealism in general has led to “a move away from that tiny little waist you can put one hand around and the gigantic, double G breasts, that almost sickening ideal. You don’t really see that as much anymore.”

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The biggest change in the decade since “Women in Refrigerators,” however, has been how well-represented women are behind the pages, and not just on them. “DC was run by Jenette Kahn, a woman, for over 25 years,” Berger says. “I’m in a very high editorial position, I have three female editors on my staff of nine, and on the superhero side there are a couple of women editors working on that material, too. There are definitely more women at the table than there were 10 years ago.” Schaefer echoed that, saying there are lots of women working at Marvel. “I’m so lucky to be working in comics when I am, because of all the women who came before me, and who have made it possible for women to work in editorial, and made it possible for women to want to make comics.” Indeed, Girl Comics more than illustrates how many talented women are working in the industry right now, and what happens when they join forces.

Isaacs says that the smaller percentage of women applying for comic book artist positions also means it’s easier for an aspiring artist to catch an editor’s eye. “If you’re a guy trying to get work you’re just one fish in a huge ocean, but because there has been such a push to get more female readers and represent both genders equally, it’s come to a point now where it’s a boon to be a woman trying to get work in this industry,” she says. There is a flipside, however: The lingering tendency to think women are only suited for, and indeed only interested in, certain genres that are more typically thought of as women-friendly, such as romance, plot-driven paranormal tales like Sandman, and manga. “When I was trying to get work at first, I would always get comments like, ‘Oh, you don’t draw like how I would expect you to,’ and I was always taken aback by that. Basically what they were saying was ‘You don’t draw like a girl.’ I always wanted to ask them, ‘What does a girl draw like?’”

There’s also the persistent challenge of marketing comics to female readers, a vital component in continuing the growth of women working in the industry. After all, girls who don’t read comics won’t grow up to be women who make comics. In 2007, Berger launched an imprint for DC Comics called Minx that was aimed at teenage girls. “With the Minx books we were trying to be more ‘real world’ and not do a lot of the genre stuff that we do at Vertigo, the horror or the supernatural backdrop,” Berger says. “We really made a huge effort, with Minx, in directly marketing to women through women’s magazines and women’s networking sites.” But the imprint was canceled after one year. “I think the material was very good but we just were not able to connect to the reader,” Berger laments.

At Marvel, Schaefer says the focus is less about getting women in particular to pick up Girl Comics. “There is not a formula that will make girls read comics. I really think it’s less making a thing girls will want to read, and more showing them this isn’t not for you. This doesn’t say No Girls Allowed on it.”

Simone, meanwhile, knows exactly what she wants to see happen now: “I’d love to have a female write a breakthrough mainstream hit, like Harry Potter or Twilight, but originating in the comics medium. Nothing demolishes antiquated preconceptions like undeniable success.”

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.