Comics Bulletin recently did a "Top Ten Comics for Girlfriends" column. While it was done well, I noticed some glaring oversights. In my own Grind and Rewind fashion, I will now correct those oversights and share some of my personal experience attempting to convert non-comics reading girlfriends into comics fans.
A bit of background: I had a comic shop — Amazing Comics and Games — in Seattle, in the University District. This was during the boom years of the boom-and-bust cycle that would become comics during the 90s. I was proud that my shop had a decent-sized group of female customers. I did my best to ensure that the store was a nice place for them to come shop, and that their needs were met and their desires catered to. But it wasn’t always that way.
A Girl Friendly Comic Shop
One day, along with the usual boxes of comics from Diamond, amidst the promotional materials and posters was a pamphlet from Friends of Lulu called How to Make your Comic Shop Girl Friendly — or something like that. (I am going from about fifteen years of old memories and I can’t recall the exact name.) Reading that pamphlet was a consciousness-raising and eye-opening experience. I did a complete re-design of my shop based off that pamphlet. Not only did I attract more female customers, but the shop was nicer place to be in general.
The advice was pretty simple. It was something like this (and again, I am going at this from faulty memory, so forgive me if I am somewhat off).
- No soft-core porn posters. This was the Bad Girl era, mind you, when the hot characters were people like Lady Death and Razor, and even respectable comics companies put out “swimsuit issues” showing their female characters popping out of their dental floss bikinis.
My shop did have an over-representation of anatomically incorrect fantasy women decorating the walls. So all those posters came down. Easy enough. And good riddance. I always hated those comics, but I justified it by “It sells and I am trying to make money,” not realizing I was chasing away a larger customer base by trying to cater to a certain small section.
- Make your shop bright, clean, and visible. Here is where the major redesign happened. Women, the pamphlet said, liked to be able to look out the window while they shop. Look at any women’s clothing store in a mall. There is always a clear view from the product to the outside. It feels safe, the pamphlet said.
Like many comic shops, my place was a virtual cave. Bookcases blocked the windows with advertising posters hung on their backs. So the book cases came down and sunlight shown in my shop for the first time in years. I had to lose some display territory, but the overall effect was worth it. The shop was more open and inviting. Like with the posters, this was a win-win situation.
- Stock items women want to buy. This was easier said than done. I had a vague idea of what would appeal to women, but it wasn’t enough to just put the female superheroes on prominent display. Wonder Woman was running around in a thong, and it seemed like pretty much every female character was getting a Bad Girl make-over. With few exceptions, female superheroes weren’t going to win the day.
Converting the Girlfriends
Not only was I looking to make the shop friendly to current female customers, I also had a more devious plan in mind.
You see, plenty of guys came in to my shop with their girlfriends. I don’t know why they came along. Maybe they were just out and about together. Maybe the guy wanted to show off a little. But for whatever reason, the gals stood around looking bored and impatient while the guys picked up their books. This meant that the guys had to hustle out of the shop quicker and buy less. I saw an opportunity. If all those girls were coming into the shop anyways, I might as well make an effort to convert them into customers. Which would be a bonus all around.
Fortunately, I had the perfect helper in my own girlfriend at the time. She was not a comic reader before she met me and knew nothing about comics other than a vague nostalgia for Wonder Woman. I turned her loose in the shop, let her grab what she wanted, and then had her report back to me. She told me what she liked, what she hated, and what offended her. I used her advice as part of my grand plan to convert girlfriends into comic readers.
Here is what was successful:
- Strangers in Paradise. The hands-down champion. Terry Moore’s independent black-and-white comic about the ongoing adventures of Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski, Francine Peters, and David Qin was the most powerful item in my arsenal. It was a great comic. Powerful story, beautiful art. But on top of that it had some kind of magical power. It was pure, addictive crack cocaine in comics form.
Whenever a guy came in with his girlfriend, and she settled into a corner with the usual bored-as-fuck-can’t-we-get-the-hell-out-of-here look on her face, I would slide up, pass her a copy of the first trade of Strangers in Paradise and tell her she was free to read it while she was waiting. Usually, I would get a “whatever” look, but then the first page would be opened. And then the next page. And the next. Nine times out of ten, that same copy of Strangers in Paradise would end up in the pile of comics to be bought that day, and that same guy would be adding SiP to his pull list the following week.
Strangers in Paradise was addicting enough that those same girlfriends started coming back on their own. Even when they broke up with their boyfriends, they would get their own pull box for their copy of SiP.
- Manga. For whatever reason, Japanese comics—otherwise known as manga—are the red-headed stepchild of comics. I have read a few articles where women talk about wanting to read “real comics” for women, and somehow feeling ghettoized by manga—as if Sailor Moon and her frilly cohorts were some kind of conspiracy to keep girls out of guy-land.
But the truth is, manga is far, far FAR more popular with women than men. At my shop, this was a product I didn’t have to evangelize to female customers, merely stock and actively advertise.
About 80% of manga at my shop was being bought by female customers. And in an odd turnabout, it was often women dragging their boyfriends into the shop to hang around a look bored when they were shopping for manga. Their tastes in manga ranged far and wide, from Battle Angel Alita to Ranma ½ to Cardcaptor Sakura. And yes, Sailor Moon.
It makes perfect sense, really. Every single complaint currently being issued at American comics has been addressed in Japan. A good mix of male and female creators? Check! A variety of storylines that appeal to female fans without
pigeonholing them into a “certain kind of comic?” Check! Female characters that are strong/sexy/cute/scary/nice/mean/powerful/vulnerable/fun/etc without serving as male fantasy objects? Check!
Japan would let out a collective guffaw at the idea that comics are only for guys. After all, how can an entertainment medium appeal along gender lines? It is the content — not the delivery method — that is important. And women and men both deserve and receive equal focus.
- Young Heroes in Love. This series wasn’t a huge hit like SiP, but it was still popular with my female customers. A clever meta-take on the DC Universe, Young Heroes in Love took the concept of forming a superhero team along the template of forming a garage band. Meetings on internet chat pages, talking about who your influences were, band hook-ups and ego battles, all done in the DC Animated style.
The series didn’t last very long, which was too bad, as it was popular at my shop at least and wound up in many a pull box next to SiP.
- Wonder Woman/Supergirl/Batgirl. Many women seem to have a strong nostalgia for these particular three female superheroes, but whether nostalgia translates into readership is another question entirely.
When I would start some of the girlfriends out on SiP, I noticed a curious phenomenon. After they got used to the idea of reading comics, after they weren’t just indulging their boyfriend’s nerdy little habit but actually enjoying a comic book—they would eventually drift over to the superhero section and pick up a copy of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or Batgirl.
Sadly, the majority of the time, that comic would go right back on the rack. Superhero comics often have a high bar of entry—they are like trying to read just the middle chapter of a book. And then, due to the twists and turns of ever-changing continuity, the character in the book may not be the character they are nostalgic for. I remember my girlfriend being confused that Supergirl wasn’t Superman’s cousin, but some sort of protoplasmic blob transformed into an actual angel.
Where Are Comics for Girlfriends Today?
So yeah, I did a few other things at the shop: made sure I had a mix of male/female staff, worked on creative window displays, and just generally kept the shop clean and professional — and I got good results. Like I said, I was proud that my shop had a decent-sized group of female customers and wasn’t just a stanky boy’s club.
Of course, the most important requirement in generating female comic book customers is comics. Unless comics companies put out comics with that market in mind, little else matters. If I hadn’t had the dual lures of Strangers in Paradise and manga, I don’t think it would have mattered how clean and organized my shop was. Not if all I had to offer female readers was a thong-wearing Wonder Woman and a proty-Supergirl.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.