The Female Thor and the Female Comic-Book Reader

The stereotype that only men want to read superhero stories is wrong—but just how wrong?

New York Comic-con attendee Stephanie Turner, dressed as Justice League's Hawk Girl (Reuters)

"Girls don't read comics, there's something in how their brains are wired that just doesn't respond to the way comics work.”

Dirk Deppey of The Comics Journal reportedly heard that quote from a comics retailer at Comic-Con in 2006. As a description of the current state of brain science, it's obviously flawed. But it works well as a shorthand for some peoples’ view of comics. Comics, conventional wisdom often suggests, are for boys. This is especially the case because superhero comics are for boys, and the superhero genre is so overwhelmingly associated with the comics medium that the two are often treated as one and the same. From this perspective, recent efforts by Marvel to reach out to women readers—through titles like the new Ms. Marvel or the recent announcement that Thor will be a woman—are doomed. Superhero comics are for guys; girl brains reject them.

Of course, that’s wrong. Lots of women do read comics in general, and superhero comics in particular.  That fact should be self evident enough by now, given the way the Internet has given voice to many female fans of the genre. And yet sexism in the comics world persists. The effort to firmly debunk gendered stereotypes about who enjoys comics and who doesn’t would seem to benefit from hard statistics about just how many women are reading. Those statistics are surprisingly difficult to come by—but the ones that are available suggest that comics, and superhero comics, historically did appeal to both genders and very well could again.

Because of low critical standing or low readership or some combination of both, good data about comics readership over the years is rare. We do know that comics were much, much more popular during the 1940s, when superheroes first burst on the scene, than they are today. Comics then were more like film or television—a mass entertainment option, rather than a niche one. A Market Research Company of America report from 1944 found that 95 percent of all boys and 91 percent of all girls between six and 11 read comics; 87 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls between 12 and 17, and 41 percent of men and 28 percent of women between 18 and 30. Comics scholar Trina Robbins told me that The Newsdealer, a magazine for newsstand owners, actually published figures suggesting that girls at the time read more comics than boys.

Comics in the 1940s included not just superhero stories, but romance, horror, crime, humor, and other genres, so it's difficult to know if women were reading superhero stories in particular in any great numbers. Gerard Jones in his book Men of Tomorrow mentioned a survey that showed that 90 percent of the readers of Wonder Woman were men—and if women weren't reading Wonder Woman, you'd think they wouldn't be reading many superhero titles. However, when I asked Jones for details about the survey, he said he had only heard about it second-hand, and expressed some doubt about the accuracy of the figures. Trina Robbins was even more skeptical, declaring that the survey results were "absolute bullshit!" She herself had read Wonder Woman, Gloria Steinem had read Wonder Woman, and both of them remembered other girls reading the series as well. Comics scholar Jeet Heer pointed out to me that there were substantial numbers of female superheroes in the 1940s, which suggests that publishers believed that there was a female audience out there.

Large numbers of women, then, may well have read superhero comics in the past. More recently, though, the gender of readers seems to have skewed very much male. Neil Shyminsky, an instructor at the University of Toronto, moderated the X-Universe Message Board at in 2004 and 2005, when it was the most heavily trafficked X-Men message board on the Internet. When he posted a voluntary survey to find demographic data, and the response was 95 percent male.

Obviously, Shyminsky's results might not be representative of the superhero comics readership as a whole—but other surveys tend to confirm his figures. In 2008, Heidi MacDonald at the comics news site The Beat pointed to a demographic survey suggesting that superhero comics readers were 90 to 95 percent male. She added, "every comics reader demographic survey we've EVER seen has 5-10% female readership." Similarly, Matthew Klokel, a retailer in Washington, D.C. at Fantom Comics Shop, estimated his store’s superhero comic readership at about the same percentage circa 2008: 90 to 95 percent male.

Again, it's important to emphasize that all comics aren't superhero comics. Matthew Klokel said that readers of manga (Japanese comics) at his store were 60 percent women. Comics editor and writer Janelle Asselin conducted a survey through social media in 2011; of the 1763 comics readers who responded, 38 percent were women, 59 percent were men, and two percent were non-binary. Asselin's survey does not break down readership by gender and genre, but she did find that 86 percent of her respondents read superhero comics.

Probably the most fascinating research done recently on comics demographics is by comics blogger Brett Schenker. In a post at The Beat, Schenker said that 40 percent of comics fans are women. Schenker explained his methodology to me:

I use Facebook's advertising system, and add key terms which is about 140 different ones, to get the results. The terms cover folks who "like" something, might be part of a group, etc. They've shown an interest in these things according to Facebook. So it's all self-identifying information. The terms I use fall into three categories. The first is generic terms like "comics" or "graphic novels." The second is the name of publishers. The third are terms specific to comics like "silver age" or "one-shots." Facebook also makes sure each individual is counted once. I don't use characters, series, or writers or artists because I think people might like those without like comics in general. Batman has a diverse base of fans, some might like the cartoon, movie, or comics. But if someone likes Action Lab or Image, I think there's a good chance they like their output of comics.

Schenker says that the number of female fans seems to vary between 41 and 47 percent. Even more interesting, querying Marvel, DC, and superhero comics on Facebook gave him a figure of around 36.5 percent women. He also checked on “likes” for female comics characters, and found that about 62 percent of them were from women. Of course, Schenker could be picking up on women who are fans of superhero movies rather than the comics (the Avengers'  audience was 40 percent women). Even so, his figures suggest that there are more female superhero comics fans out there than many other surveys have indicated.

So, after collecting all of this somewhat contradictory information, I thought I'd ask my local expert on comics demographics—James Nurss, the owner of First Aid Comics in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Nurss has been working in comics retail in one form or another for 25 years, and he told me that especially in the last six or seven years, he's seen a major growth in women comics buyers.

Now I'd say it must be 30 percent, and they do come in and buy superheroes.  For me it started when the fans of Buffy got that Season 8 [comic]…. And they would come in and buy that, and from there expanded to…Fables and Y:The Last Man. And they would tell their friends about that, and then women would come in strictly for those. And ever since then it's been growing and growing, up to now with the new Ms. Marvel, which is the new hot thing a lot of women come in and buy. That and the Young Avengers.

Nurss added that the films have boosted awareness of the properties substantially. That fuels the sales of superhero key-chains and knick-knacks more than comics per se—but Nurss said it does push sales of graphic novels associated with the films, like Captain America: Winter Soldier.

It seems likely, then, that women make up a substantial proportion of comics readers—not quite half perhaps, but in the neighborhood of 30 to 45 percent, depending on what metrics are used. Superhero comics are significantly less popular with women than they are with men, but that doesn't seem like an immutable truth. Female superheroes like Wonder Woman and (I'd argue) Buffy have attracted women readers. As the Ladydrawers collective has documented, comics, and especially superero comics, have done a poor job of including female creators.

When women create superhero comics, though—as with G. Willow Wilson on Ms. Marvel—they've had success attracting a female audience. So Marvel's decision to make Thor a woman, and the company's general effort to reach out to female readers, seem like canny business moves. At a moment when superheroes are becoming more popular and comics are becoming more respected, it makes sense for publishers of superhero comics to start trying to create stories for the other half of the population.