Women in comics: the indie revolution

2017 was a rough year for Marvel and DC when it came to representing women’s interest in comics. DC was in the midst of a years-long struggle over Eddie Berganza’s sexual harassment of female employees and Marvel’s disastrous retailers panel saw the purveyors of comic stores blaming the renewed spotlight on diverse characters over old-hat heroes for the slumping comic sales industry.

With all this going on and the fact that only about 16-18% of creators and 30% of titles at the big two are female, it can feel unrepresentative of the world at times. This is where the indie comic scene comes in and where meaningful change to the industry is rapidly approaching.

This isn’t to say that the big two haven’t challenged readers with feminist content. Batwoman is now leading the team in the Detective Comics title, Wonder Woman is the enigmatic force she always was, and Marvel has created a firestorm of popularity over Kamala Khan, but indie comics seem to be able to engage readers with more challenging ideas for a variety of reasons.

For starters, most of the heroes of the big two are not merely characters on the page anymore but colossal properties tasked with propping up massive multimedia empires where fan service and a positive response are paramount to the bottom line. We may see a female Thor, but with a significant enough backlash she could easily be thrown to the wayside which appears now to be happening in an upcoming Marvel relaunch.

Back in 2012, the negative fan response to the new look for Captain Marvel sparked a response from creator Kelly Sue DeConnick, who was called an “angry feminist” for her part in the changes, which saw the creation of the acclaimed Bitch Planet series, a series which features “non-compliant” women being sent to a prison on a different world, which they end up ruling.

Bitch Planet, a dystopian feminist comic book written by Kelly Sue Deconnick.

A book like Bitch Planet simply couldn’t exist under Marvel or DC, both because of the apprehension of publishing thought-provoking content, but also because the indie comics model allows creators to own the work with little or no involvement from the publishing house, so the creators see a direct impact on their original stories and characters.

Bypassing industry gatekeepers is a common theme in getting diverse creators and stories out to the public. Webcomics are often seen among the comics industry as inferior to other forms of comics, but the readership and creators behind the scenes are often as diverse as the stories on the screen. LINE WEBTOON, a popular webcomics publisher focuses on diverse stories and fan service and achieves near gender parity in its endeavors, with about 43% of creators and upwards of 50% of readers being women.

Another major step happened in 2015 when Emet Comics was founded by Maytal Gilboa who recognized the lack of content with a female perspective in the comics community. Founded with the express intent of empowering female readers and content creators, Emet has grown tremendously in its first three years, and now boasts dozens of graphic novels and digital comics for its readership, and Gilboa is now in the process of shopping around the series Finding Molly, a series about an artist cat-sitting for her parents, for a television adaptation.

Lumberjanes, by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen and Noelle Stevenson.

Hollywood will presumably be a great outlet for more diverse content from the comic world, and while Image and its many titles that have made that leap, other publishers are now finding their footing in other entertainment mediums. Boom! Studios’ super successful series Lumberjanes, a series focusing on an all-girls camp where the campers go on magical adventures, was picked up by Fox (which owned a minority stake in Boom!) and is set to be directed by Emily Carmichael (co-writer of Pacific Rim: Uprising).

Boom! Studios and Emet comics’ commitment to female creators and topics has been essential to their successes, and have no doubt inspired further female creators, such as Katie O’Neill’s Princess Princess Ever After for Oni Press, but comics as an industry and a fandom can be resistant to change. Just last year a multitude of Marvel’s diverse titles were cancelled, along with DC’s Supergirl just this week – though the latter appears to be due to a shakeup of the Superman titles with Brian Michael Bendis taking over the writing duties for the two main titles.

Even more disturbing is the consistent harassment female creators undergo on social media, which ignited a firestorm of controversy when Heather Antos, an editor for Marvel’s many Star Wars titles posted a selfie with her female co-workers drinking milkshakes.

It’s important to remember though that the most vocal opponents are a very small minority and that at least professionally their views aren’t shared among those in the industry. Scroll through any female creator’s tweets at any time of day and you’re liable to see harassment in its many ugly forms. It’s high time that female writers are treated as the norm rather than an anomaly.

Image credits: Boom! Studios, Image Comics


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