Women in comics: Beating the boys club

I grew up wanting to be X-Men’s Storm, or possibly Catwoman. Now I’d settle for seeing a decent, female-led super hero movie.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved comic books and superheroes. I grew up watching reruns of the 1960s Batman TV show, the Bruce Timm Batman and Superman cartoons, and X-Men: The Animated Series. I stole the trade copies of Elf Quest my older sister borrowed from her friends, and spent my small allowance on random issues of X-Factor and Catwoman.

In my teens and early twenties I discovered indie comics and titles like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Roman Dirge’s Lenore. Now, as a woman in my thirties, my DVD collection includes every live-action Batman film made since 1966, Linda Carter’s complete run as Wonder Woman, and a large portion of the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a relatively recent transplant to RVA, I perform and vend at events like Raven Con and Richmond ComicCon, and host a game of comics-inspired Sentinels of the Multiverse in my home each week.

Yet there are a great many people who would assume that any interest I have in comics or their signature superhero genre doesn’t come from a genuine appreciation of the medium or its content. Instead, the expectation is that I, a woman, must only be feigning interest for some ulterior motive.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that comic books, an industry long dominated by male artists, male writers, and male characters, can sometimes be something of a boys’ club. Although female leading ladies such as Sheena: Queen of the Jungle and Phantom Lady debuted in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a glance at the pin-up style art used in those publications makes it clear that these ladies were intended for a primarily male audience. Notable feminist icon Wonder Woman hit the newsstands in December of 1941, but even she was created by a man and originally written for a male audience (albeit with a pro-woman message).

Although the number of women working in the industry has significantly increased since the Golden Age of comics, most of the writers and artists working on big-name comics are still men, as are the majority the executives at companies like Marvel and DC. As a female reader, it’s impossible to miss the way this imbalance behind the scenes helps foster a biased and occasionally outright misogynistic culture among the medium’s fan base.

Some suggestions…

Captain Marvel

Marvel Comics

Written by outspoken feminist Kelly Sue DeConnick, this title has received an abundance of praise for its realistic and relatable portrayal of Carol Danvers, the title’s super-powered leading lady.

Girl Genius

Airship Entertainment This steampunk title is the ongoing story of a budding mad scientist determined to reclaim her lands and titles. It’s available in trade paperbacks but can also be read for free online.

Rat Queens

Image Comics Comedic and sometimes poignant, Rat Queens follows the exploits of an all-female, D&D-style adventuring party.


Action Lab Comics

A limited run title (only four issues), this title turns the fairy tale tropes on their heads and gives us a princess who isn’t interested in waiting around to be rescued from a tower.

Recently, Marvel launched a new run of Spider-Woman comics as part of its on-going effort to attract a larger female readership. Despite the intended audience, however, someone at the Marvel offices made the decision to hire Milo Manara to illustrate the variant cover of issue number one. It’s no surprise that Manara, an artist renowned for his erotic style, drew the title character as if she’d been painted into her costume and in a decidedly pornographic pose. Needless to say there was a significant outcry from female fans and feminist readers of all genders.

Immediately following this backlash, Marvel canceled other upcoming Manara covers for female-led titles such as their newly retooled Thor. Nonetheless, Marvel’s original choice to hire Manara speaks to exactly how disconnected the industry’s executives are from their female readership. Perhaps even more frustrating than Marvel’s extremely questionable idea of pro-woman art was the indifferent and occasionally caustic reaction from so many male comic fans. “What’s the big deal?” seemed to be their refrain.

These are the same male fans that will grill women who cosplay or otherwise express interest in comics to determine if they have adequate geek cred, or if they’re just “fake geek girls.” These are the same male fans that insist the occasional deaths of male characters disprove the existence of the incredibly sexist Women in Refrigerators trope.1 The same male fans that fail to see the difference between art and stories that depict idealized men, and art and stories that depict objectified and fetishized women. In such a hostile environment, it’s a wonder that female comic fans exist at all. But exist we do, and in increasingly larger numbers. It’s in response to this growing fan base that comic shops all around the country have started hosting special events specifically for women.

Stories Comics, a mainstay in Richmond since 1984, held its first Ladies’ Night event on Friday, September 19th at their flagship location on Forest Hill Avenue. Caitlin Bridges, who grew up surrounded by the industry and has worked at Stories since 2006, first suggested the event after talking with other female comic shop employees around the country. “The comics industry is still largely created, distributed, and consumed by men,” said Bridges, “and sometimes women have uncomfortable experiences in it because of creepy guys who don’t think we belong there.”

I’ve shopped at Stories many times since moving to Richmond six years ago, and while I have never been made to feel unwelcome, I’ve also never felt so at home there as I did that Friday night. There were snacks, drinks, and copious amounts of free comics and related goodies. More importantly, however, the display racks at the front of the store had been stocked with titles featuring female leads, and everyone I interacted with that night–from fellow shoppers to special guests–had two things in common with me. We were all comics fans, and we were all women.

Stories owner Cheryl Pryor said, “The funniest part [of putting on Ladies’ Night…] was how many of the guys, when they found out about it, were like, Why can’t we have a Guys’ Night Out? I told them everyday is Guys’ Day at the comic book store.” Ladies’ Night was a wonderful and rare opportunity for female fans and creators to rub elbows and celebrate our shared love of comics. Present that night were local illustrators Cathryn Hutton and Melissa Duffy, as well as fantasy and horror authors Belea T. Keeney and Nancy A. Collins. These special guests shared their talent and their time generously, and Hutton praised the event saying, “The night turned out to be a very relaxed environment, a lot of very nice people came in to check us out. Overall it was a success. ”

Although Stories has yet to nail down a date, Bridges said she was “overjoyed” at the community’s enthusiastic reception of Ladies’ Night and that another similar event will hopefully be in the works soon. Keeping an eye on the Stories Facebook page and storiescomics.com for more information about future Ladies’ Nights.

Photo by: JD Hancock

  1. Named for the events in Green Lantern #54 (1994), this trope refers to the death, rape, loss of powers, or other form of disempowerment of a female character for the sole purpose of furthering a male character’s story or character arc. 
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Shannon Willow

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