« Your separated by a common culture Friday open thread | Main | My rational fear of inflation »

July 16, 2011


Comics with female leads of any stripe have generally failed to sell. Which is, of course, a self-perpetuating cycle that makes comic-book stores feel like mens' locker rooms. It also leads to frequent reboots of low-selling books with female leads, in turn weakening the books. Worse still, it leads to fewer women interested in making comics this compounds to the point where you have very very few women writing or drawing for Marvel or DC.

It's just a brutally vicious little circle we have going on over here.

One might note the path of Japanese female manga artists. Rather than try and find a place with men's manga, they basically created a different genre called shojo manga. This is an interesting article about the genre. The Nijuyo-nen gumi, so called because they were all born in 1949 (Showa 24), were the women artists who were the founders.

I guess that the problem with starting up your own comic universe for the US is that the DC and Marvel universes are a bit like a cultural heritage, with characters interacting with each other across titles, so it is not really possible for a group of women to carve out a space in that universe.

Does DC have the 18-34 male audience? I kind of figured these days they had more like a dwindling 35-50 male audience, which is probably what's worrying them. And I'm not sure this will really help.

I think Kesler misses a critical point. Even though the men running film studios may not be (or at least want not to be seen as) sexists, they actually aren't the ones making the critical decisions. Similarly with the heads of comic book publishers.

The guys (and I'd bet big bucks they are guys) who make decisions on distributing movies (which is what brings in the cash), and the guys who buy (and perhaps the ones who sell) advertising for comics, are . . . much less enlightened, if you will. They have an idea about women's proper place. And, as important, about who buyers of tickets and comics are, and how those buyers see women. And those guys are much less concerned about being seen as liberal.

It doesn't matter to the buyers what the realities of the potential market are. They are basically buying for either "folks like me" (even though they may see the targegt audience as a lower age demographic) or "folks like the way I want my kids to be." Not, note, the way that their kids actually are. (Compare what general officers think the attitude of the troops is towards gays in the ranks, vs. what the troops themselves think on the subject.)

The only way to break thru that block is to find alternate markets. Ones where you don't have to deal with the entrenched buyers -- entrenched for at least a couple of decades more (especially if it is, as I suspect, a mater of corporate culture by now). The ability to independently publish direct to DVD, and sell on Amazon, may help. And if someone finds a way to do their own advertising (i.e. buy their own space and/or air time), that will help, too.

I'll have to pay more attention to our scripts now that I'm primed to, but the show I work on, "Royal Pains" which is one of, if not the highest rated drama on cable TV, has two female characters that have become friends over the course of the show and definitely talk about things other than men. They go out and party together, they blow off jerky guys together, they talk about their jobs... sometimes they talk about their relationships, of course... that's a prime theme of the show, but it's not forbidden thing for the writers to have the characters do.

I also don't know the specific demos for the show, but I'd bet there are more female than male viewers.

OK, this isn't the open thread. But I just can't resist the opportunity. CM, since you work on "Royal Pains", is there any chance of getting Reshma Shetty's photo in the opening credits replaced with something less ghastly? Normally, the opening credits photos go overboard to be complementary. But hers is just awful. And it's something that's bugged me ever since they replaced the even worse photo that they used originally.

P.S. it is a good, and very well written, show. I'm really glad that I stumbled across it last summer.

One factor explaining part of the insanity might be a siege mentality in the industry. Back in the day, if you were the kind of person who dreamed of a very different world, you didn't have many outlets besides comic books. Now, comic publishers are competing with every web site on the internet, cable TV, movies, and video games. Heck, they're not just competing with TV and movies, they're competing with the back catalogs for those things. It is not so unusual for younger folk to say 'I think I'll watch all of Star Trek on netflix'.

There's a lot more competition, so I'd expect sales are down in the long term (or at least flat which is about the same thing for a country with a growing population). Inside the companies, there may be a feeling that no matter how hard they try, they can't budge the needle, and that could easily lead to a certain conservatism: 'let's go after [what we think is] our most loyal demographic, we can't afford to take chances on something uncertain like wimmins!'. (There's a parallel to religious movements here, for example Osama Bin Ladin's belief that all the problems of the Muslim world could be fixed if only everyone abandoned 'newer' ideas and returned to doing things the way the Prophet did them.) Loss aversion makes people in doomed industries irrational.

I don't know much about the industry but looking at sales numbers here things look pretty bleak. The recession makes it tough to compare 2007 to 2011 numbers directly, but even over the last year, lots of properties seem to have either falling or flat sales. Not good.

Dr. S, It occurs to me (somewhat belatedly; I blame lack of sleep) that last year there was a show on cable called "Rizzoli and Isles" which featured two women (one cop, on pathologist). If there was a male lead of any kind, the memory illudes me.

Pity it did not get renewed, although so-so scripts, and a lack of other distinction between it and CSI, NCIS, etc. may have had something to do with it.

Umm WJ the show you're talking about was definitely got renewed (and according to the AV club is consistently scoring as one of the most popular shows out there).

Considering the astounding popularity of things like My little pony (seriously astounding) and The hunger games which feature female leads and are popular with a wide audience, DC comics might want to reconsider their stance.

"Rizzoli and Isles"

Just started a new season this week, 10 est after The Closer (strong woman lead) on Mondays.

Sorry, having some problems with my eyes again. The link for the interesting article is http://www.matt-thorn.com/shoujo_manga/japan_quarterly/index.php. There is some other interesting stuff on matt's site about manga. He makes this point about the US system of comic book creation:

Another serious flaw in American mainstream comics: the twin evils of divided labor and work-for-hire. I said earlier that Japan is the Hollywood of comics, but it was D.C., Marvel, Image and others—not Japanese publishers—who adopted the Hollywood system of corporate production. When you've got one person writing the story (and subject to severe editorial restrictions), another doing the pencilling, a third doing the inking, a fourth doing the lettering, and fifth doing the coloring, what do you end up with? I don't know, but it's not a coherent work of art. If they were all working in the same studio, looking over each other's shoulders, discussing what it is they want to achieve, they might come up with something great. But this is never the case in mainstream U.S. comics. The product is passed along, assembly-line fashion, from one pair of hands to the next, overseen by an editor whose primary job is to protect the commercial integrity (which is certainly not to say quality) of "The Property." One glaring flaw that results: redundancy (and occasionally contradiction) of text and image. Ask any Japanese who's seen one: American comics are too wordy, and more than half of the words are rendered superfluous by the images. Add to this the fact that in any given month, one or more members of one of these non-teams is likely to be replaced at the whim of the publisher, and you have a real mess. A good indicator of the degree to which labor is divided, and to which that division is taken for granted, is the absurd categories (30 at last count) in the Eisner Awards.

This parallels wj's point (or maybe it is wj's point, I'm a bit fuzzy this am) The phrase 'workers' control of production' keeps bouncing around in my head, but I'm not really sure why...

CCDG, thanks for the update. Obviously I have not been browsing the TV listings carefully enough. (Which is not generally a bad thing. But occasionally....)

Coincidentally, that Murderati discussion comes from a post by Tess Gerritsen, the author of the Rizzoli & Isles books. Gerritsen is Chinese-American:

It was back while I was writing romance novels for Harlequin Intrigue, and I had a chat with one of Harlequin's top brass. She loved my writing and she wanted to discuss my upcoming book projects. I asked her if she'd be interested in a romance featuring an Asian American heroine.

She wasn't afraid to tell me the truth, and I will always be grateful for her honesty. Harlequin had done extensive market research, she said. They knew which titles were hits and which were flops. And whenever they published a book with an Asian hero or heroine, no one bought those books. They might be the best stories in the line, but they invariably failed in the marketplace.

"I want your books to be bestsellers," she said. "And this will hurt your sales."

I took that advice, so generously given, and all my novels have featured white heroes and heroines. I've slipped in Asian Americans as secondary characters: Maura's morgue assistant Yoshima, for example, or Vivian Chao, the fearless surgeon in HARVEST. But in none of my books have I featured an Asian or touched on those painful memories from my childhood -- until now.

Nonetheless, I do think that the principles the Harlequin editor outlined were specific to the genre of romance, and to Harlequin in particular.

I don't know of any Asian-American detective novels that are popular at the moment, but they've got a track record back to Charlie Chan at least. The detective or investigator is always a limnial figure, on the edge between right/wrong, so there's no barrier to making hir out of the ethnic mainstream, as well.

Perhaps this is what you mean by limnial, but I think is essential to the genre that the detective be an outsider. That outsider vibe may not be readily apparent, but I think it is a part of the make up of the detective, though my reading of the genre is pretty spotty.

As for Charlie Chan, you might want to take a look at Yunte Huang's book "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous With American History" that argues that Biggers based him on an actual person who was a police detective in Honolulu.

There's been a lot of discussion about how movies and TV are moving to more mixed ethnicity. I'm not sure how you quantify this, but it seems that more and more stars are touted for their mixed heritage and being ethnically ambiguous is an advantage. Unfortunately, doing that in writing may be a bit more difficult. And at any rate, it doesn't do anything for the soft-core porn vibe you mention.

Some of you may be amused by this video:

Having knows a fair number of women who were involved in actually fighting in armor (wooden swords!), I can say that there are only two significant differences in men's and women's armor -- and it isn't the one on the book covers (comic books or otherwise).

If they are actually going to get hit with something:
1) Men may sometimes include a breastplate in their armor (if not quite as wrap-around as in the video), but women always do.
2) Men wear a cup.

To add to the comment by liberal japonicus about the creation of shojo manga, Japanese publishers have taken a rather more subtle approach to expanding their audience. Shonen (targeted at boys under 18) and seinen (young men 18-30) have seen a stylistic change in the past few years, as artists have incorporated elements from shojo into shonen and seinen comics, most notably the bishonen ("pretty boy") character designs, which are almost an industry standard at this point. The thinking is that this will attract more girls and young women to action/adventure comics.

Japanese comics seem to be substantially fan-driven -- artists and publishers actively solicit reader feedback and fans have a fair amount of influence on the direction stories may take and even what characters may be featured.

Perhaps DC and Marvel should think about that.

Asian american women in paranormal romance/procedural are not uncommon. Then again, all of those I can think of definitely cater to a *vastly* *vastly* *vastly* more liberal audience than standard romance novels. Now that I think of it, I wonder if paranormal romance isn't really an escape hatch for women who don't actually like the vibes in many standard romances.

I know little about the behind-the-scenes of European (i.e. predominatly Franco-Belgian) comic production but I can see a lot of diversity there. There are many series with a (usually non-married) couple as heroes with the female usually taking the lead*. One of my favorites has a Japanese female single** as the main and title hero.

*even if it started with the male as lead, it tends to develop over time into female dominance.
**a developing romantic relationship got toned down because fans got jealous.

Hartmut, could you give the title of the one you mention (and some other ones that you like)?

I have been a http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoko_Tsuno>Yoko Tsuno fan since I first stumbled on an album at the rolling public library. Unfortunately the author is a lone wolf and one has to wait years for the next (a new one is announced (in the German edition) in December this year).
A (imo) prime example of a series with the female working her way up from sidekick to inofficial lead would be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Val%C3%A9rian_and_Laureline>Valerian and Laureline.
A weaker example would be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storm_%28Don_Lawrence%29>Storm. Starting as a comparatively conventional series with male hero and female sidekick, it later developed into one where we have a co-equal trio (Storm, Roodhaar, Nomad). Nomad has red skin but is in essence a black character.
A favorite of mine was/is Bastos et Zakousky. There are a few strong females there but they are just a minor part of the band of misfits* that fights tsarist oppression in pre-revolutionary Russia.
After several (imo bad) redesigns of the webpage I used to read dailies on I lost the connection to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non_Sequitur_%28comic_strip%29#Danae>Non Sequitur a bit. Danae is clearly a lead character there and the strip has a number of other independently-minded strong females.
Other favorites: Prince Valiant, Nick Knatterton, Asterix. A rather old-fashioned taste, I admit.

*a French burglar, a Samojed trapper, an Italian showman, a liberal Russian professor and his daughter (disguised as the Red Cossack, leader of the rebellion) plus a few others.

Thanks Hartmut, you got me looking forward to ordering books during the vacation!

If it is a little late, is it still synchronicity?


Director Tsui Hark talks about his latest film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The film tells the story of Di Renjie, one of the most celebrated officials of the Tang Dynasty in 7th Century China.

The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2010 Venice film festival and it premiered at the Toronto film festival.

Someone should bring this issue to the attention of the president of DC Comics; I wonder what her response would be.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad