Mainstream superhero comics are aimed at guys. That's why Starfire, a character best known for her stint as an empowering icon for girls on Saturday morning cartoons, gets turned into a voracious, literally brain-damaged, libido-driven pin-up girl when she's translated to comics. It's why Wonder Woman, best known as an empowering icon for girls, gets turned into an excuse for buckets of bloodshed and gun play in her most recent comics incarnation. Data is hard to come by, but best guesses seem to estimate that the readership of superhero comics is between 90 and 95 percent male.
Last week, ThinkProgress's Alyssa Rosenberg confronted a bunch of mainstream comics creators about the lopsided nature of their industry. The result was predictable, if depressing. Speaking from the stage of the Television Critics Association Press Tour in support of the superhero comics documentary Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, some of the most celebrated and influential creators in comics dutifully ran through a list of the shoddiest and silliest excuses for their genre's consistent misogyny and myopia. Executive producer Michael Kantor, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, The Punisher creator Gerry Conway, and Wolverine creator Len Wein replayed the greatest hits from irate comments sections the web over. "As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys" (McFarlane). "There's nothing stopping the people that want to do [comics about girls] from doing it," (McFarlane). "It's like saying, 'Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?' Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. It's not it's an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes" (Conway). Et cetera, et cetera.
Rosenberg shoots down most of these arguments efficiently (superheroes unlike knights aren't real, so there's no reason for them not to be women) and the others have been dispatched before (stereotypical male action hero bodies are not the same as stereotypical female stripper bodies). I'd like to look at one in particular that often comes up: The "politics don't make a good story" argument. Essentially, the assertion is that including political content in your art, especially feminist political content, makes for boring stories that drive people away. Or, as Todd McFarlane put it:
There hasn't really been historically a comic book that has worked that is trying to get across a kind of message, if you will... So the female characters that work are the ones that are just strong women that actually it's good storytelling, and the odd character that is a minority that works is the one that is just a good strong character. They've tried to do minority characters and bring that label and that surrounding [debate] into it. You're aware that you're reading a minority comic book. I think it's wrong.
There are various problems with this statement. The main one is that "historically," it is complete and utter hogwash. It simply is not true that superhero narratives with political messages have been unsuccessful. On the contrary, the most lauded, and really most popular, superhero stories of recent times have embraced explicit political content and controversy. With its fake Mandarin, Iron Man 3 is explicitly about Orientalism and prejudice. The Dark Knight Rises exploited the Occupy movement and class tensions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perhaps the most successful new superhero of the last 20 years, was a feminist model and dealt with feminist themes throughout its run.
If you want to restrict the discussion to comic books, the two most successful female superhero comics--and for that matter, two of the most successful superhero comics period--were both feminist. Sailor Moon was all about sisterhood, girl power, and women triumphing over evil together while wearing frilly outfits. It just about single-handedly transformed the comics market in the U.S., so that suddenly the biggest growing sector was girls, and the biggest growing series were Japanese. (The decision of comics critic and small manga publisher Erica Friedman to learn Japanese just to read Sailor Moon is telling, if not exactly typical.)
The original Wonder Woman comics were even more politically engaged. Creator William Marston believed that women were better suited than men to rule, and his comics were devoted to explicit feminist moralizing. In one issue, Wonder Woman becomes the president of a future utopia. In another, she teaches girls that they can perform amazing feats of strength and skill if they only believe in themselves. In a third, Wonder Woman has to dispel an ectoplasmic doppelganger of George Washington who attempts to convince the United States that women should not be allowed to contribute to the war effort. Back in the 1940s, these issues moved hundreds of thousands of copies each -- dwarfing sales of all those present-day non-ideological superhero comics that Todd McFarlane draws.
This shouldn't really be a surprise. Superheroes are utopian fantasies about the triumph of justice. It doesn't take a whole lot of perspicacity to figure out that story lines involving heroes triumphing over actual injustice -- not just super villains, but real-world inequities like sexism -- are going to appeal to fans. The first superhero stories were Great Depression parables about Superman beating up corrupt mine owners and other bloated capitalist antagonists. The genre really took off during World War II, when Captain America, Wonder Woman, and other star-spangled heroes beat the tar out of the Nazis and the Japanese. Superheroes have almost always done best when they've sent a message.
Gerry Conway claimed that "comics follow society. They don't lead society." This isn't because superheroes are innately retrograde -- Sailor Moon, Buffy, and numerous other examples show they don't have to be. Rather, as Conway explained later on Twitter, it's because the current superhero comics industry is committed to characters that are between 30 and 70 years old, a narrow, shrinking, aging audience, continuity porn, and compulsive reboots. Those four guys on stage muttering about why superhero comics don't speak to women (with greater or lesser degrees of self-awareness)? That's not a sign that superheroes and women can't mix. It's a sign that the industry in question is intellectually and creatively moribund.