Shelf Life: The Women in Comics Controversy

Thu, August 11th, 2011 at 2:38pm PDT | Updated: August 11th, 2011 at 2:38pm

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist
8

Heart is a female-led rock group who have found success in a man's world

A few months ago, I wrote a column about the danger of becoming a "greatest-hits" act vs. embracing your past. I mentioned that I was planning on seeing Def Leppard play at Saratoga Performing Art Center. Which, last week, I did.

The warm-up act was Heart. I have to admit, not one of my favorite bands, but one I always found interesting because it's a rock act fronted by two sisters, Ann and Nancy Wilson. Even now, female rockers aren't that common. But Heart has been around since the 1970s, when such a thing was a rare commodity indeed. Maybe not all of their music is to my taste, but I've always thought the success and longevity of the Wilson sisters -- in a male-dominated industry -- was pretty cool. And, let's face it, who doesn't love that transcendent guitar riff in "Barracuda."

Heart opened by covering Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," and closed with The Who's "Love, Reign o'er Me." It was the girls doing the boys' songs, and ripping the roof off the place with them. Obviously the parallels are not exact, but the similarities between the boy-dominated worlds of comics and rock got me thinking, again, about the brouhaha over women in comics that sparked up again after the con in San Diego. So I started writing this column right after Heart's set (the second time I've written something in the seats at SPAC, the first being some "Emerald Twilight" pages years ago during a Peter Gabriel set break).

Unless you've been on a desert island without Internet access for the past few weeks, you've heard the background: a woman dressed as Batgirl asked questions about female character and female creators at four different DC panels. Someone else yelled out a statistic about DC's percentage of female creators dropping from 12% to 1% (which turns out to be a statistic with absolutely no factual basis, but was reported in the mainstream press anyway). From all reports, the ensuing discussion got somewhat contentious. A number of days later, DC co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee released a statement about hiring female creators, saying, "We hear you." And the internet did its usual thing, with people getting all hot and bothered, picking sides, pointing fingers, and cherry-picking anecdotes (and statistics) that support their particular arguments. The passion is understandable, as it's a very personal issue for a lot of people.

I'm not here to "solve" the dilemma of women in comics. I'm not here to lay blame. It's a complex situation with complex causes and complex answers, and frankly a few thousand words by anybody doesn't begin to scratch the surface. I can only tell you what I've seen, and what I've experienced in two decades in this business. Your mileage will vary, of course, depending on your point of view. Remember, I'm ether the guy who stuffed a female supporting character into an appliance (terrible, horrible misogynist), or the guy who writes strong female characters in "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" and "Shinku" (stalwart champion of women everywhere).

Adriana Melo drew acclaim for her work on "Witchblade" because of her skills, not her gender

I think -- I hope? -- the one thing we can all agree upon is that the comic industry needs more women. We need more women creators, we need more women readers. I would suggest that those two items are not unrelated. More product appealing to the other 50 percent of the population would seem to be a way to sell a few more copies. I would also point out that "the comic industry" does not equate to merely Big Two superheroes. Certainly mainstream Marvel and DC titles get the most notoriety from hardcore fans, but comics is a much bigger tent than that.

My sense -- though I don't have any data to back this up -- is that there are more women working in comics now than ever before. Not enough, but certainly far more, in both editorial and freelance capacities, than when I broke in two decades ago. In those twenty-plus years, I've worked with a number of women. I've worked with women who have done amazing work (the same goes for men). And I've worked with women in comics who were frankly pretty lousy at the job (the same goes for men). I suppose that's an obvious thing to say, but sometimes you need to point out the obvious: someone's sex doesn't automatically make them the right choice (or the wrong choice) for a job. Someone's talent, sensibilities and work ethic determine that.

Filling a creative roster on a slate of projects is not like plugging names into a fantasy football roster. Creative casting is an art. Not all creators -- male OR female -- pine to work on Marvel and DC superhero books. Not all creators are suited to it. However, since that's where the majority of the paying work is, there's always a line to get through that particular set of doors. Keep in mind, though, virtually nobody walks through those doors untested. Breaking into comics is like working your way up through the levels of minor-league baseball before reaching the majors. So I'm pretty sure everyone agrees that we're talking about the need for more opportunity here, not simply handing Project X to Creator Y simply because she's a woman.

I honestly believe it's a lot easier for female artists to break through and land work than it is for female writers to do. That shouldn't be a surprise, because the same is true for men. It's much harder to break in as a writer than as an artist. It always has been, it always will be, simply because of the nature of the work. An editor should know whether an artist is suited for a job after just a few minutes of perusing a portfolio. A writer's work is harder to judge, and the process of judging is more time consuming. There's also a lot fewer slots for writers -- because many writers handle multiple assignments -- than artists.

Let me tell you a story about Adriana Melo. If you're not familiar with her work, she's a Brazilian artist I've worked with on a number of occasions. I've specifically avoided "naming names" in this discussion, but in this case, even if I didn't mention Adriana by name, you'd be able to put the pieces together and figure it out. When Mike Choi left the art duties on "Witchblade" a few years ago, we needed a new artist. I suggested Adriana, not because she was a woman, but because she was a good artist, a good fit, and would have an opening in her schedule. Short version, she got the job, and for a number of issues, "Witchblade" had a female penciler, a female inker, a female colorist and a female editor.

By the time Adriana's first few issues had hit the stands, editors from two other companies had contacted me, asking me how long she'd be on "Witchblade," and could they possibly have her contact information. No one said, "Hey, she's really good for a woman." They just said, "Hey, she's really good." They wanted to hire away Adriana -- and eventually did -- because of her work. And ultimately, that's what any of this comes down to: is the work good (and appropriate to the project), did it come in on time, and does it sell?

A "Samurai: Heaven & Earth" pin-up by Melo

That last part, as always, is where the audience can have a real hand in the process: if you buy it, they will print it. Short version: want more books by female creators? Or even starring female characters? Make damn sure you buy and promote them when they hit the stands. I said this is a complex situation, and it is, but this part is simple. If something sells, publishers publish more just like it. If something sells, retailers order more just like it. In the present market in particular, what sells (and who sells) is what gets published. Keep that in mind next time you're at the counter of your local comic shop.

You're aware of the Womanthology project on Kickstarter, right? It's a "by women" comic project that generated more than $100,000 in funds, better than four times its original goal. That's a pretty fair indication that there's interest in comics by women. But money makes the world go around, and that includes the publishing world. Supporting the work in stores is the best way to cast your vote, whether it's on meat-and-potatoes superhero books, creator-owned visions at Image, or more personal small-press work.

Meaningful change is often a slow process. Two decades ago, when I wrote my first issue of "Silver Surfer," I probably could've counted the female creators in the business on both hands (if I had a few extra fingers). I have to think those women had a lot to do with inspiring the current generation, because I'd need a whole lot more fingers to count the creators now. And this generation will inspire a lot more. This industry owes them the opportunity. And then it's up too you to support them.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image Comics, which debuted in June, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, ronmarz.com

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TAGS:  ron marz, shelf life, heart, adriana melo, womanthology

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