What Women Want

A column article by: John Voulieris

Let’s face it, men are hopelessly confused when it comes to women. I for one have many healthy relationships in my life with the opposite sex: a loving girlfriend, a great sister, and many female friends, and yet I do not claim to fully understand the female mind.

As a guy I find that the more I open my ears to women’s views on a variety of subjects, the more I learn about them and about myself. So what better subject to act as a bridge between the sexes? Why comic books of course!

Comic companies are ever so desperate to tackle the “female readership market” (note the inherent sexism in that remark – like as if one element will appeal to women across the board not accounting for age, taste, ethnicity, etc. I mean don’t men like different genres? Why not women?), but what they have rarely done is ask current female readers what they are enjoying and what turns them off this little hobby of ours.

So EIC’s and fanboys take note: I have interviewed 3 great women (Lauren Dayap, Linda Burns, and Melissa Ashton) of various ages, interests, and locations who post on various comic book related message boards (Millarworld and www.imwan.com) and they graciously took the time to shed some light on the world of comics from their perspective.

Do they want more men in tight spandex? More romance comics? More bad girl comics? Leave your assumptions at the door, and read on, you may be surprised…


JV: Give us some general info about yourself: location, age group, occupation, location, etc..

Lauren:
I'm originally from and reside in Mahwah, NJ, which is about 45 minutes north of NYC. I've lived in Mahwah for 24 years, but left when I went to college in Philadelphia at Drexel University where I majored in Dramatic Writing (study of screenwriting). Sophomore year I switched to Corporate Communications since I felt it suited me more than Dramatic Writing because I wrote for my school paper and was Newsletter Editor in a student organization I was in. Graduated December 2002 from Drexel, moved back home and worked various temporary jobs until September 2003. I work in the Research Dept. of a PR service company in NYC. It’s going well so far...

Linda:
I’m a Librarian, 45, living in the Tampa Bay area.

Melissa:
Ok, my name’s Melissa Ashton, I’m 23, I’m a professional computer nerd and I live in Canberra, which for those who don’t know is the capital of Australia. And no, I’m not the athlete of the same name.


JV: What comics do you read? Any old favorites? Creators you follow? What are you looking forward to in 2005?

Lauren:
Comics I am currently reading are Daredevil, The Punisher, Superman/Batman, Superman, Fallen Angel, The Pulse, The Question, Bite Club (although haven't kept up with it well), Catwoman: When in Rome, Supreme Power and Madrox. My old favorites are Wanted, Chosen, Identity Crisis, The Punisher Essentials, The Punisher War Journals, and War Zone (my brother's old Punisher comics), Superman for All Seasons, Preacher, Sin City: That Yellow Bastard, Sin City: The Big Fat Kill, Batman: The Long Halloween, Fantastic 4 Essentials, Superman: Birthright, Hulk: Gray.

The creators and/or writers I try to keep up with/follow are Mark Millar, Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale (I think they make a fantastic team), Brian Bendis, Alex Maleev, Peter David, Frank Miller (I'm very curious in reading his Batman: Year One), Jim Lee, Michael Turner. For 2005, I'm really looking forward to the Jim Lee/Frank Miller collaborating for Batman and Robin and whatever Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale do.


Linda:
My tastes are fairly old school, so I tend to gravitate to stuff by Byrne, Busiek, Jurgens, Stern, Simonson, and Ordway. Creators of that stripe. Geoff Johns, Will Pfeifer and Dan Slott are recent favorites. Basically, anyone who can manage an intelligent and contemporary spin on the classic (Silver Age) motif without relying on deconstruction or "irony". If these people get lots of work in 2005 then it will be a good comic year for me. I don't really care what series or "big events" are published as long as the stories are engaging and the characters are done properly.

Melissa:
I read far too many. Monthly I think I pick up something like 30 titles. Probably my top ten (the ones I rush to read first) would be Avengers (I refuse to call it the New Avengers. Trust me,that title won’t last. In a year or two it’ll be back to normal again), JLA, Doom Patrol, Supreme Power, Birds of Prey, the Ultimates, the Authority, Action Comics, Justice League Elite and Exiles.

I follow very few creators, and usually artists more than writers. There are some creators whose stuff I always get, and these include John Byrne, George Perez, Jim Lee and Chris Bachalo (yep, all artists). Another artist who is threatening to make this list is Ethan Van Sciver. He’s been doing some excellent work lately and I’m starting to keep an eye out for what he is working on. Writers who I quite like (and generally get most of their stuff) include Kurt Busiek, Gail Simone, Jeph Loeb and Geoff Johns.


JV: Is your reading character, creator or genre driven?

Lauren:
Well I most likely would have to say genre and plot driven with creator and character behind. Actually, it depends…with certain comics, the thing that most appeals to me would be the genre and plot (i.e. Identity Crisis)...when I first read the ad in the back of a DC Comic, I was quite curious about it since it mentioned how everyone in the DCU will suffer a great tragedy.


Linda:
It is purely creator driven at this point. My days of following specific characters are long gone. Let's face it, all the best stories featuring the classic DC and Marvel characters have already been done and will never be topped, so the incentive to purchase yet another hundred issues of "The Remarkable Whateverman" is going to come down to the talent behind it. It also keeps things fresher for me, checking out characters I hadn't paid much mind to beforehand, just because a specific writer is doing them.


Melissa:
It’s definitely genre. I read very little outside Superhero fare (Rex Mundi is the only non-superhero title I can think of off the top of my head that I get). There’s just something about four-color heroes doing good and righting wrongs that I like – it’s so different to real life, where usually the bad guys win all the time, right in front of our eyes, and they've subverted society to the point where we, or at least the media, cheer them for it.

After that, I probably gravitate towards characters. For example, I’ll always buy The Avengers. I don’t think I can explain it in a way that makes sense, but I’ve basically known these guys all my life and I don’t feel I can turn my back on them, no matter how Bendis it gets. Sorry, Freudian slip. I meant how bad it gets.

After that, there are the creators I mentioned above. I always get their stuff.


JV: How did you start reading comics? What hooked you? and what age?

Lauren:
I just started getting into comics really hardcore like around summer
2003, because of the show, Smallville. Yea, I know it sounds weird but from watching the second season and seeing online discussions about the show, whether or not they discussed Jor-El, Eradicator, etc. I became quite interested in reading the current Superman comics (Action Comics, Superman: Birthright, Superman/Batman, Superman for All Seasons, Superman) and from there it all just snowballed.

I got into The Punisher next, yea talk about two opposites…What I liked about The Punisher was the rawness in the story of him. But on some level before Smallville came on, I did like comics on some level whenever a comic book-based film got released like when Batman (1989) and/or Batman Forever came out. I seem to recall I did buy a Spider-Man comic book when I was really bored on vacation in Maine. I've liked them on some level when I was 9 through up but just last year, I got into it really hardcore by reading of various authors, artists and characters.


Linda:
Oh, I remember this vividly. I was 6 years old. It was the day after I'd seen the Batman TV series premiere on ABC, in January 1966 ~ I was shopping with my mother in the local "stationery store" (do stores like that exist anymore?), and I noticed a wall-full of superhero comic books which I guess had always been there, but had never captured my attention before.

Following up on my newfound Batman interest, I picked out a copy of The Brave And The Bold with Batman fighting Eclipso. Loved it. LOVED it. Soon enough I was buying all the Bat titles, which spawned an interest in DC's other books, then Marvel, and so on and so forth. And hear I am nearly 40 years later, still reading the damn things! :-)

Melissa:
My father worked as a printer when I was little and one of the regular jobs he worked on was black and white reprints of DC comics, sold in Australia in a quarterly compilation under some imprint which I can’t remember. He used to bring a bunch of these home and I devoured them, and I’ve loved comics ever since.

The first ‘proper’ comics I discovered were John Byrne’s Man of Steel series. After a steady diet of black and white reprints of Curt Swan, Gil Kane, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, this blew my mind. I’ve been a Byrne fan ever since.


JV: How do others view your hobby? Boyfriends, husbands, peers, etc?

Lauren:
My friend's fiance and I talk about comics whenever we hang out because he’s a collector so that is pretty cool. I found another comic book fan at work, which suffice to say he's hardcore collector for years and I've talked and asked him questions about certain comics. He was also nice enough to lend me his Fantastic 4 and Spider-Man Essentials. I don't think my friends think anything less of me, maybe they're surprised I've gotten into it.

Linda:
Well, my (ex) husband was a bigger comic geek than me, so that aspect of the relationship didn't present a problem. (Some friendly advice for your readers ~ a shared interest in comics isn't necessarily enough to build a lasting relationship out of. Trust me on this!)

As far as my colleagues' reactions over the years, I don't think they really understand. They seem to process my love of comics as part of a larger juvenile fiction interest that "librarians are supposed to have", if you see what I mean. So they don't subject me to any grief for it, but I don't believe they quite "get it" either.

Melissa:
I think my parents affectionately indulge my little bit of childishness, plus my father started it all, so he probably likes that it’s something that resonated with me so much and that I’ve stuck with.

Never had any boyfriends (I’m not that sort of girl) but there was only one girlfriend who ever had a problem with it (and she didn’t last long!) Mostly I’ve found it to just be accepted as part of me, although sometimes with a little smile.

I don’t know how it is for other women who read comics. Most of the straight women I know seem to be more concerned with more important “life” things than I am, and almost none of them have hobbies. I only know a handful of girls who read comics.


JV: As a woman do you identify with any characters? Is it hard to in a field that has been described as a venue for male power fantasies? Do you find that there are stereotypes? Misogyny? What bothers you in comics?

Lauren:
Hmmm, maybe a tiny bit of Peter Parker because of the fact he didn't quite fit in well at high school and I sort of felt like that too.

Linda:
As a child, Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) ~ so much so that I chose the library as a career. Today, not really. Once in a while a particular scene, or a particular character's behavior or dialogue, might resonate a bit more strongly with me. But generally speaking, the way most women are portrayed in contemporary comics is neither flattering nor realistic, and there isn't much on offer that I'd *want* to identify with. :-(

The "default setting" for female comic book characters nowadays tends to be one of two cliches ~ we're either shown as raging, male-baiting post-feminists, or as tragic/silly/amusing creatures who are consumed by neurotica. There are exceptions, of course, but those two portrayals have sadly become dominant. Ironically, the retro portrayals of women in the comics of my childhood were much more accurate overall (for that era) than the supposedly "enlightened" manner in which women are depicted in comics today. So yes, there is a large amount of stereotyping, and it's doubly offensive because these portrayals of female characters are usually the ones pointed to proudly by DC and Marvel as "proof" of how sophisticated and realistic comics have become.

And to make matters worse, the few well-conceived female characters they *do* have are often damaged for the sake of quick sales, shock value, or simply a lack of creativity on the part of some writers. You know, I'm very tired of hearing about how certain female characters are "boring" or "stupid", and "need to be gotten rid of" or "need to be totally reworked", when what they really mean is that they simply don't have the chops to write interesting stories using those characters.

Melissa:
I think we all identify in bits and pieces with many characters, and I don’t think it’s a gender thing. We all experience a little of The Vision’s detachment from time to time, or The Huntresses anger, Doom’s arrogance or Captain America’s nobility (or at least, we hope we do). So it’s not so much a case of identifying as a woman, for example, with a female character, so much as seeing elements of ourselves, whatever we are, in various characters.

Of course there are stereotypes, but I think that’s also true of the male characters. Comics characters are very rarely anything like whole people, they’re generally a few characteristics packaged together. What’s Johnny Storm’s position on tax relief for the elderly? How about Oracle’s pick for next year’s Superbowl? Most of the millions of things that make up real people are, unavoidably, missing from any fictional characters, who really only exist to show us different sides of the story.

I do believe there’s a kind of misogyny in comics, and I think there are several stripes of it. The most innocent is the male writer writing a male character and trying to imagine the worst thing that can happen to him, and he comes up with the girlfriend in the refrigerator. I don’t think this particular example is motivated by actual misogyny, but rather the opposite. Still, it helps make comics girl-unfriendly.

Then there’s the darker type. This is either the guys who want to do bad things to women, and get their fix writing it into fiction, or those going for the sensationalist thrill. It’s too easy to have Sue Dibny raped, to have Wanda or Jean Loring go insane, to stick Batgirl in a wheelchair or chop up Kyle’s girlfriend and put her in the refrigerator. It’s one thing to see this in Indy books, where it’s just as often the guys who suffer, but in the mainstream books it always seems to be the chicks who get it in the neck.

This brings a very negative “we don’t want you” vibe to a female reader. You know, if it was just one story, it’d be different, but when the two big events of the two big companies are dragged through the rape and mutilation and crazy-women-villains muck, it’s a bit much


JV: Why don’t more women read comics in your opinion?

Lauren:
I assume well that a LOT of people still think of comics as "kiddie" literature just because they contain pictures and word bubbles...so I assume that is why a lot of women sort of brush them off. Like they feel they're way past that stage since its child's play and girls always want to show off their maturity, well most of them do. And so they just simply move away from the hobby of reading and collecting comics.

Linda:
For the same reason more men don't read comics nowadays ~ we're not being brought into the hobby in childhood, when an interest in comic books best takes root and becomes something you might keep as a hobby for your entire life. Few people start on this "habit" in adulthood, after all. The comic companies periodically go through phases during which they pay a lot of lip service to the concept of "bringing more women into the hobby" ~ but until and unless they actually try to reach a new generation of young female readers rather than always pushing their "girl-friendly" books to the same old male audience, nothing will change.

Melissa:
I think it’s mainly a boy thing. Male power fantasies, like you mentioned, plus the idealized over-muscled men and over-breasted women and it’s all boys’ stuff. It’s probably no accident that most of the artists and writers are boys too. Plus I think the, for want of a better word, traditional comics (big stories, lots of action, neat resolutions) are more like action movies, and we all know they’re boy pics.

And then every now and then you get the girlfriend in the refrigerator syndrome and it probably turns potential female readers off.


JV: What do you enjoy about comics?

Lauren:
What I have been enjoying about comics so far are the stories. All different kinds of stories that involve all sorts of people. Not to mention the arts/visuals of comic books really help in depicting the type of story that’s being told. I truly believe that comics make up a big part of modern American mythology.

Linda:
For me it's about 50% nostalgia, 50% actual interest in the stories and artwork. First and foremost, the whole "comic book experience" is a way to recapture a certain childlike pleasure for the 15 minutes or so that it takes to read one of them. Without that deep connection to my youth, I doubt I'd be anywhere near as interested in comics today as I am. And when comic books are done well, there's no other medium which can fit as much fun, imagination and passion into one package. Action, adventure, athleticism, science, fantasy, philosophy, soap opera. And all of these qualities are mixed together into one product, like an epic film with a budget of astronomical size, because a good artist can make any cast of characters, any locales and any special effects come to life using only pencil and ink. "Dollar for dollar, comics are your best entertainment value!" Right? :-)

Melissa:
BIG FUN!

I like good, honest escapist entertainment. I like Galactus coming to eat us, and the Fantastic Four stopping him. I like Kang time traveling to attack the Avengers, I like the JLA traveling to different worlds and averting the destruction of life as we know it. These things comics do better than any other media. You only have to look at the X-Men movies, which I loved, to see where comics are so far superior in this genre. Think of the X-Men in the Savage Land, or the Dark Phoenix saga, or Days of Future Past. Movies can’t compete in this arena. Books don’t have the visual aspect of Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton steaming after a sentinel has just obliterated him.


JV: How do you buy your comics? Is going to a store a pleasant experience or are you met with variations of comic book guy from the Simpsons?

Lauren:
I commute to NYC, so I go to Midtown Comics (Times Square store). I'll sometimes go to Midtown (Grand Central), Forbidden Planet or Jim Hanley's but I like Midtown (Times Square) the best because of the way everything is laid out in the store (back issues in order, toys separated from the comics) and its also closer to Port Authority Bus

Terminal (I commute through there). I've made a friend there somewhat, well you know gives me a “hi” whenever I come in and asks how I am if he’s ringing me up. Hal is his name...pretty cool guy.

Linda:
Well there are no comic shops at all where I live now, so I've been buying exclusively through mail order the past few years. But back when I was buying from local shops I often found that the reactions to me and other female customers were of the "unintentionally condescending" variety. Many workers, and some of the male customers, have this attitude where they're just sort of "grateful" when any women show an interest in comics, and they don't expect the same critical standards or discerning tastes from us that they do from male readers. They'll just throw a bunch of Archie and X-Men comics at us, or a stack of Manga telephone books or whatever. :-) We're just so "cute", ya know? It's pretty funny.

Melissa:
I pick up my comics locally. We’re pretty well serviced in Canberra. For a city of 300,000 people, there are three decent comic shops. My favorite is Dee’s Books and Comics in Belconnen, but Hall of Heroes in Phillip and Impact in Civic are also quality stores.


JV: Any other comments? Anything you want to say about the industry?

Lauren:
I wish females (well most people) would stop dismissing comics as "child's play". Before, I had the same exact sentiment, but after really getting into it and going to my LCS, I was shocked to see people in their 40s and 50s buying comics. In conclusion, I don't think ANYONE can be too old to still be into comic book reading/collecting.

Linda:
Yes, please tell "The Powers That Be" to stop the self-congratulatory announcements about their "modern" portrayals of women that really only sell to a predominantly male audience. Tell them to quit patting themselves on the back for "broadening the audience" when all they're doing is getting the same old buyers to buy more comics and trades. And for Heaven's sake, enough farting around with this "We got two more trades into two more bookstore chains, woo hoo!" nonsense.

If they're truly serious about wanting to reach *kids*, then make the comics available *where kids are* ~ right here on the internet. They need to rework their business model to include selling digitized comics online. They're not going to reach new generations of readers the way they're currently marketing the books ... and if they don't reach a new generation, when we current readers are gone, the comic industry will die along with us.

Melissa:
Just as a reader, I’d say that the industry needs to recover what made it great in years gone by. In my view it’s becoming an elitist niche industry, where many "pros" exhibit characteristics of the Simpson’s Comic Book Guy. I think the less product that is made by and marketed to those people (you know the stuff. Dark, gritty, Batman’s a psychotic and The Comedian’s an abuser of women) and the more that is marketed to the mainstream (Avengers vs Ultron, JLA vs Amazo, those great stories – Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier or Kurt Busiek and George Pèrez on Avengers are great contemporary examples) the better the industry will be. But then, I don’t expect them to listen to me; I’ve only been buying comics for nearly 20 years.

As a female reader, all I’m going to ask is please stop sticking women in the refrigerator.




So from the above we can safely conclude...aw what the hell do I know?

Thanks to Lauren, Linda and Melissa for their insightful comments.

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