Kate Leth: Fighting Hello Kitty-ificationA comics interview article by: Nick Hanover
We spoke with Kate Leth for our piece on the gender issues going on in comics, but the conversation was so fun and interesting that it seemed like it'd be a waste to not let others read it, especially since only a portion of it was used in the article. Kate is best known for her tumblr, Kate or Die but her work will also soon be seen in the much hyped Womathology anthology. Kate also works at Strange Adventures and is all in all an awesome person.
Nick Hanover: You didn't make it down to SDCC, did you?
Kate Leth: No, I didn't. I'm hoping to make it to NYCC, though.
Hanover: Do you attend many conventions?
Leth: Not at all. I've only been really into comics for the last year or so, and I went to TCAF, but that's it. I'm not rich enough yet to travel to most of them.
Hanover: I totally know what you mean, they can really dry out your bank account.
Leth: Exactly. Working in a comic shop is great, but it doesn't afford me too many plane tickets!
Hanover: As someone's who's relatively new to comics, how accessible do you find the mainstream publishers?
Leth: Well, I read a lot of self-contained stories from DC. I've tried to get into the ongoing series but I feel completely lost. I asked a friend of mine where to start on Batman, and he gave me a stack of issues a foot tall. I lost interest after that.
Hanover: So, before the incidents at the panels at SDCC, did you think the DC relaunch made their titles more appealing to you?
Leth: Definitely. I heard a lot of resentment from regular customers at my shop, older guys who have been reading since childhood, about having to start over. For me, it was (and still might be) a place to start without getting overwhelmed. Plus, I've been waiting for Batwoman to start for about a year. At this point, though, there are really only about four titles that appeal to me.
Hanover: Which titles are those?
Leth: Batgirl, Batwoman and Justice League Dark. I wanted to try Supergirl, but the description they put in the solicitation drove me crazy. "All the powers of Superman with none of the empathy for humanity. So don't piss her off!" I'm paraphrasing there, but it's close. It just seems so cheesy. I'd like to try Batman, but I haven't seen anything that's really grabbed me. I'll definitely pick up the first issue of Wonder Woman, pants or no pants, though.
Hanover: With those titles is it more the creative teams that have you interested or the subjects themselves?
Leth: Both. I've always liked Batgirl, although my familiarity is limited to the animated series and films, as well as The Killing Joke. I'm concerned with how they've changed her, but I'm trying to keep an open mind. Adam Hughes' covers look gorgeous and I like that Gail Simone is writing it.
With Batwoman, it's the character and the art. J. H. Williams III and Dave Stewart are a dream team, plus Amy Reeder is on it and she's great. As for Justice League: Dark, I'm not even sure why it appeals to me, but it does. I don't know much about any of the characters.
Hanover: Personally, I'd follow Peter Milligan anywhere, so that's why that book appeals to me.
Leth: I honestly think I'd be more interested in Supergirl if they hadn't cut the knees out of her boots. It sounds petty, but that bothers me so much.
Hanover: Like from a design perspective? Or attitude?
Leth: It's just ridiculous. Why would you leave a very vulnerable, breakable part of your body totally exposed? It's like the Huntress' belly window, for me. Getting shot in the knee would hurt a lot more than in the calf. If you're flying, you might land on your knees!
Hanover: Right, a lot of the costume decisions aren't exactly practical. I've never understood why Supergirl would wear skirts, for instance.
Leth: Haha, exactly! She's doomed forever to useless costumes.
Hanover: Her and Wonder Woman both, it seems.
Leth: It's not as bad as Harley Quinn's, though, at least.
Hanover: So when the relaunch and the creative teams were first announced, would you say the issue of gender equality was on your mind?
Leth: For sure. I follow a number of "women in comics" blogs and news sites, and it was all anyone was talking about. I flipped through the "New 52" book we got in at the store, and I see less than a handful of women. Everyone praises Gail Simone, and I'm not belittling her in any way, but there are so many more writers and artists out there. She's honestly the only name that comes to mind, and I'm not even sure if Amy Reeder is still working on Batwoman. But again, I haven't looked at it with a microscope. I'm sure there are some I'm missing.
Hanover: No, you're correct, she is the only full-time female writer involved at this point.
Leth: That's a shame.
Hanover: Did you follow the Twitter conversation with Gail and her readers where she spoke about other female creators who were almost involved?
Leth: I didn't! I haven't been following her on Twitter, although I see her retweeted quite a bit. And it doesn't make sense. A lot of creators are working on more than one title, I'm sure there's room.
Hanover: To very loosely recap the conversation, she basically went into the details of what happened with other female creators who were supposed to be involved, which was even then a small amount. A few had other commitments and I believe one or two were just uninterested, but even Gail admitted that she didn't know of many who were asked to be involved.
Leth: Such a boys' club!
Hanover: As an artist trying to make it into the industry, are the Big Two the kinds of places you'd eventually like to work? Or do you find them impenetrable? (and I just realized what a field day Andrea Dworkin would have that choice of words right there)
Leth: Hahaha! I don't really see myself working for Marvel or DC except in the case of something likeStrange Tales or Girl Comics. I don't draw superheroes other than to poke fun at them, and they don't seem to want any ongoing series that play with the style at all. Except for Tiny Titans. I'd be stoked to do something like Tiny Titans. But since I'm not drawing spandex and muscles, I can't see ending up there.
Hanover: So would you say that that lack of adventure amongst editorial, as you've pointed out, is a big part of what keeps a lot of female creators from wanting to get involved with the company? And do you also feel that that might in some ways keep female readers from being interested in their books?
Leth: Definitely. There are exceptions, but the vast majority of DC comics I see coming out each week don't appeal to me at all. All these Flashpoint crossovers! I tried to read an issue of Deadman, because I loved the covers, but I had no idea who anyone was. How can I want to get involved with something I don't understand? I think that's why so many women are drawn to webcomics and independent publishers. We see work coming out that we identify with, that we can get excited about, and we want to do it too. I wish they would take more chances. I wish they had done Lois Lane, Girl Reporter!
Hanover:: You mean like Nick Spencer did with Jimmy Olsen?
Leth: The pitch that Dean Trippe did for DC awhile back that never made it anywhere. I would have bought every issue!
Hanover: Oh, right, that looked pretty great!
Leth: It really did. It would have gone a long way to proving that men who work for DC can write decent female characters, too. All I know is, half the customers at the comic shop are women, but barely any of them are buying things like Flashpoint.
Hanover: When the news first started to break out about Kyrax2/Batgirl going to the panels and questioning DC editorial about the lack of female characters and creators, did you feel she was articulating a point that has come up for you as a reader and as an artist? Were you having similar conversations with the female customers where you work?
Leth: The regular female customers at the shop all seem to know about her. She's famous! She's saying something we all feel, and it's brave. I think it all the time. I'd love to read a comic about Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, but I have no interest in Gotham City Sirens. I'm appalled at how they're selling Catwoman's new series. None of us can understand how they can stand up and say they're trying to appeal to new readers and then completely alienate half the population.
Hanover: There seems to be a disconnect between the response Kyrax has been getting from those who have heard about her panel comments and the reaction of the audiences. Given how some of the crowds and panelists treated her, do you think that's part of why so few female readers had spoken up before this? Do you think her actions will encourage others?
Leth: I hope it does. It can't have been easy. I wish we could have all been there to back her up! I hope she knows that she's an inspiration to people like me. But it's out there, and while I think the immediate response was unfortunate, the response online from women I know in comics has been so encouraging. There's always got to be a first person.
Hanover: Very true. Have you seen the petition Nosexismatdc.tumblr is circulating?
Leth: I haven't! It sounds familiar, though. Oh yes! I think either Ladies Making Comics or DC Women Kicking Ass posted that.
Hanover: Yeah, I'm not sure where it actually started, Tumblr isn't the best about citing sources.
Leth: Ain't that the truth! I'm hesitant about how well these petitions actually work, but better than nothing at all.
Hanover: I totally know what you mean, I'm always wary of petitions.
Leth: Yeah, I think it's not the best way to appeal to an already dismissive company. That seems to want the girls to leave them alone, hah.
Hanover: So, the spotlight has been on DC throughout this, mainly because of the relaunch, but do you feel Marvel is better about representing women?
Leth: Well, I don't know. I grew up on Batman and X-Men. I always liked the women in X-Men. But they're just as bad when it comes to marketing to women. Although, I do know a lot of girls that pick up X-titles! Maybe that's not the best way to say that. Marvel always seems like a less intense company. Less aggressive.
Hanover: Do you mean in terms of marketing?
Leth: Hmm. Here's what I mean: Neither Marvel nor DC especially market to women. I saw a Captain America ad recently in a comic for movie tie-in shirts you could get, and it said "for men and boys!" Diamond was even putting out Batwoman shirts, but only in men's/unisex sizes.
Leth: Marvel's doing the Tokidoki thing, which is cute, but it assumes that all girls want is the Hello Kitty versions of comic merch. They don't even solicit size Small shirts half the time.
Hanover: It's interesting too because DC's CEO is a woman, as is Archie Comics' (though there are some major issues going on over there at the moment), so you think they'd be more aware of fixing those kinds of marketing snafus.
Leth: You'd think! It's one of the most common complaints/conversations I have at work. We got Wonder Woman and Batgirl shirts only in Large and XL men's sizes. Yet, when we got Walking Dead shirts in ladies' tees, they sold out almost instantly!
Hanover: Do you think a company like Image is inherently more devoted to their female audience?
Leth: I think so. Girls love the Walking Dead. It's crazy. They love Invincible, too. They seem to realize that. We got these great Invincible baseball tees in girls' sizes. They've got to know.
Hanover: And yet do you think Robert Kirkman and the rest of Image have done anything specific to court female readers?
Leth: I'm not sure if they have! The Walking Dead doesn't have any especially fantastic female characters, but it's a smart and well-written zombie story and that appeals to everyone. I can't speak to that too much, I don't know a whole lot about Image.
Hanover: It's interesting too because, historically, most of the comics and lines "designed" to appeal to female readers have failed. Stuff like DC's Minx and Focus lines. Do you think that the issue is more the sense of pandering that occasionally comes with experiments like that? The Hello Kitty-ification you spoke of earlier, in a way.
Leth: Absolutely. It happens when men try to appeal to girls. It's sort of like when adults try to write for children, and it comes out awkward and unrelatable. Putting out a series and saying THIS IS FOR GIRLS! FOR GIRLS! HEY GIRLS, READ THIS GIRL COMIC... It's just going to turn us off. All you have to do is write good female characters, and we'll find them. I mean, I loved the Girl Comics book, but I hate the name. Pandering is the best way to put it, haha.
Hanover: Yeah, we ran a review a while back for Marvel Divas where our writer basically went on at length about the disconnect between what the book was trying to do and its marketing and cover art. There seems to be a lot of confusion on behalf of publishers in terms of how to market to women, especially when they may be new readers as well.
Leth: Marvel Divas! I'll be honest, I saw that and didn't read it specifically because of the cover art.
Hanover: Trust me, you weren't alone in ignoring that book because of its cover art.
Leth: Haha, yeah. "Hey girls, read this! But first, check out all these spandex-covered boobies!" So strange.
Hanover: What's interesting to me too is something you speak about quite a bit on your Tumblr, which is this issue comicdom has with female sexuality and its expression. Your art is often very sexually frank and you just recently put up a list of similarly frank, realistic graphic novels. Do you think that subject is one of the largest obstacles for publishers?
Leth: Well, here's the thing -- I think a lot of men in comics don't know how to relate to women. They don't know how to write them or draw them. This isn't all, of course, but a fair few. They know how to make what men want, but not what women want.
Like, they put out these gift books a few years ago, and I'm sure you've seen them, called Porn for Women. It's all these photos of men cooking, cleaning, saying things like "don't you worry, I'll do the dishes tonight." It's crazy. Women are sexual, and they're interested in sexuality, but a lot of men seem to find that wildly perplexing.
Hanover: Yeah, those were pretty horrific. I'm not sure if you've seen but there's a similar bit of surreal craziness going on with viral advertising for "feminine hygiene" products at the moment.
Leth: I have! God, that's weird. Like those "mow the lawn" ads for shaving your pubes. I can't imagine a woman creating those.
Hanover: Ha, yeah, forgot about those.
Leth: This is why I love Jess Fink and Chester 5000. It's an erotic, explicit book full of graphic sex, but it's beautiful. It's fun, it's relatable, and girls I show it to go nuts for it. Even without any dialogue, she creates these well-rounded women who you not only get excited by, but care about. The perfect balance between hardcore and Harlequin romances.
Hanover: Right, and there are some men doing similar things, like Los Bros Hernandez.
Leth: I need to read more of their stuff!
Hanover: Haha, everyone does. There's so much, it's easy to not be up on it.
Leth: Worth the effort, though, I hear.
Hanover: Definitely. Might be better to just pick up the Palomar collection, or a similarly focused collection rather than the general Love and Rockets collections.
Leth: Neat! Awesome. But yeah. I think people identify with my comics, or at least I hope, because I'm very honest about sexuality and I don't have issues talking about it.
Hanover:I mean, even something like the infamous Jessica Jones/Luke Cage hook-up in Alias was treated as a seismic event when it came out. So much so that Marvel had to divorce itself from the Comics Code altogether to publish it.
Leth: I haven't read that! We just got that back in the shop, too. I say "I haven't read that" quite a bit, haha.
Hanover: It's a really great series, back before Bendis became... well, Bendis, haha. Definitely worth checking out. Basically, she had a casual hook-up with Luke Cage in the first issue...
Leth: Ah! Women in charge of their sexuality! Danger danger!
Hanover: And people freaked out about it, as well as the maybe-maybe not implication that they had anal sex.
Leth: And we get such sex-positive stuff from that now...
Hanover: Do you think that sexuality is something frightening to some of these creators and editors, though? Do you think that's why female sexuality so often gets reduced to something cartoonish in comics?
Leth: Yeah. I do! I don't think they know how to deal with it. They can't seem to find the happy place between prudish good girls and sex-crazed supervillainesses.
Hanover: So between the shop and the Tumblr, have you gotten much feedback from female fans about what they expect from comics? Outside of the obvious.
Leth: Well, everybody's a little wary right now. The expectations aren't high. I get a lot of shrugs, a lot of half-hearted "we'll see." They had the opportunity to create new series that would have wowed us, had us lining up for it, but aside from Batwoman, there's not a lot of hype.
Hanover: Do you think comicdom is at risk of really losing that portion of the population as a result? Even lines that have historically been well received by women, like Vertigo, appear to be dying off...
Leth: I think it needs a change. Not just a reboot, not just a slight reworking of the same old things, but new content. New characters and series that are relatable and interesting. Girls are buying Vertigo, but not new stuff. Sandman, Y: The Last Man and Fables. But Fables has been going on so long that some people are losing interest, yeah.
Hanover: Vertigo isn't putting out as much new content as it used to. And pretty much the last question I have is just what creators you think offer hope for the future for female fans, either at DC or elsewhere...
Leth: Well, I think many of them have yet to be seen. I'm working on a project for Womanthology, and over 140 female artists are involved with it. It's garnered and incredible media response and the Kickstarter broke all the records for that service. I'm hoping it'll help get girls like me in the door, that the excitement about it will help break down the door into such a male-dominated industry.
Hanover: Yeah! that's something I'm especially excited for. Can't wait for it to come out!
Leth: I've heard so much more positivity about that book, which doesn't even exist yet, than about the DC reboot. I hope it goes to show that people want what we're selling. There's an incredible wealth of talent out there, and here's hoping that the next time Didio screams at someone asking WHO SHOULD WE HIRE?!