The past year has seen a lot of focus placed on gender in comics, with numerous female-centric comics receiving high profile launches and loyal fanbases popping up to support them. The increased importance fandom has placed on gender was incredibly apparent at the Gender in Comics panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Despite being in one of the convention center's smaller panel rooms, it quickly went over capacity with volunteers working overtime to find seats for the ton of people that showed up.
Ball State University professor Christina Blanch moderated the panel, an appropriate choice considering the Gender Through Comic Books class she recently taught as an online course. The panelists included writer Paul Cornell, X-Men editor Jeanine Schaefer, Archaia Entertainment editor Rebecca Taylor, "Superbia" writer Grace Randolph, "Ladies Making Comics'" Alexa Dickman, BOOM! editor Dafna Pleban, "Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade" writer Landry Walker, and Disney editor Janelle Asselin. Blanch kicked things off by asking the panelists when they first noticed gender roles in their own life.
"I always felt kind of lucky because my parents made a point to not let me and my sister become girly-girls," Dickman said. "They were very focused on our school performance and our physical capabilities. My sister went to a football game with my dad once and wanted to buy a souvenir pom-pom. My dad said she could have it if she promised she would never become a cheerleader, because he said that people should cheer for you."
"I internalized gender roles," Schaefer said. "I didn't have a lot of girl friends who played video games and read comics… I was playing 'Metroid' and at the end the suit comes off and it's a girl. I was like, 'Wait a minute, there are girls who do this stuff? This is amazing!' Fast forward to now, and we just put out 'X-Men' #1, which is an all-female team!"
"I wanted a baby doll at the age of three or four," said Walker, one of the two male panelists. "I was told I could not have any dolls or cooking toys; instead I got a tool set. I was very much pushed to the male things and pushed literally away from anything that was feminine."
Blanch related her own story about her childhood experience with gender roles. "I was told at one point that I could not be Han Solo when we were playing ['Star Wars']," she said. "So I beat that kid up."
Blanch then asked the panel if they considered comic books to be a gendered medium, which led Taylor to point out the difference between comics in America, which favor male-heavy superheroes, and those in Japan and France, which focus on other genres.
"[Comics are] a medium," Asselin asserted. "Like television and books and movies, comics are a medium that you can use to tell any story. It's not inherently male or female." This tied into an experiment Blanch conducted with her students, wherein she had them read comics in public and report other people's reactions.
"All of the females had something said to them," Blanch said. "One professor actually walked by one of my female students and said, 'Why are you reading that?' She explained that she liked it, and he said, "Well, I'm glad you women can read those things.' None of the males had anything said to them, except one who was reading 'Buffy.'"
The systems through which comics are delivered to the masses, including comic book stores and the direct market, might force American comics to skew one way.
"I was interviewing the founder of [digital comic book store] comiXology and it's so interesting to see what the popular subscriptions are there," said Randolph, revealing that the popular books for online distributors rarely match up with the superhero-focused hits sold in comic book stores.
"I do think the superhero genre has been damaged by this [male-focused] perception," Pleban said. "I don't think power fantasies are limited to gender. Buffy is a perfect example. [Women] love superheroes and physically empowered characters who make choices in their lives. The perception that women don't read different genres has led the superhero genre to where it is right now, with limited voices. That's why [the all-female] 'X-Men' is important."
Paul Cornell, who currently works with Schaefer on "Wolverine," related what it's like to work together on a book with diversity in mind.
"It's a pleasure to get feminist notes," Cornell said. "Or notes like, could this character be in a wheelchair, or be a different ethnicity? Coming back to Marvel, it feels like there's a sea change and a push to be more fifty-fifty. Obviously, we have an enormous way to go, but there's a change happening for the better.
"I think ['Uncanny X-Men' writer] Chris Claremont was an early practitioner of this. [He was] way before his time. I worship at the church of Claremont."
"Claremont's exact line when he was asked about why he created all these female characters, was that when he was creating new characters he always asked himself if there was any reason why they couldn't be a woman," Dickman added.
Blanch then had the panel sound-off on which comic book character they thought to be the most masculine. Taylor and Walker both said Superman, while Asselin pointed to Batman.
"I think Bruce Wayne is more masculine [than Batman] when you think about it, because he puts on this mask of the playboy, and his mother died when he was young and he doesn't know anything about women. He was raised by his butler."
Both Cornell and Schaefer eyed Wolverine for "Most Masculine," but Cornell got to it first. "I think he's very complicated and very hurt," the writer explained. "I think he's burdened by masculinity." With Wolverine off the table, Schaefer claimed the Hulk. "Dude has some issues, and he can't deal with them all that well." Randolph called Nick Fury the most masculine hero, citing the recent "Fury MAX" series as evidence.
A few panelists gave pre-New 52 DC Comics characters some attention, with Dickman calling Midnighter the most masculine and Pleban shouting out John Constantine. Pleban offered up her feminine ideal as well: Black Widow. She stated that society's inherent notion of gender roles could easily be read into reviews of "Marvel's the Avengers," where Black Widow's important role in the film was often marginalized or side-lined in critiques.
"A lot of reviews of 'Avengers' focused on her looks and missed where she saved the day," said Pleban. "She literally went from point A to point B to point C [to save the day], and you get remarks like, 'She just posed.'"
When Blanch asked about the most feminine comic book characters, Asselin cited Rogue, which Walker agreed with. Dickman and Taylor gave the title to pre-New 52 Lois Lane and Barbara Gordon, respectively.
"The Batman universe was a guy universe," Taylor said. "Barbara Gordon came in and was like, 'this is what I do, I already exist here.' She was not like, 'I'm one of the guys!' either. She was a total bad ass."
Schaefer then stole Cornell's answer, explaining why she thought Sue Storm holds the title. "She's so strong," said Schaefer. "She's a mother, she's protective of her family and she's the glue that holds the Fantastic Four together." Cornell called Sue Storm almost an index of feminism throughout comic book history, saying that the way she's been portrayed over the past 50 years is evident of society's attitude towards women at the time. Cornell then personally cited Kitty Pryde as his most feminine comic book character.
Blanch closed the panel with an important question: What has improved in comics in regards to gender portrayal? "I think everything in general," said Dickman. "But it does seem to come in waves. In the '70s and '80s, you had 'X-Men,' but the '90s seems to be this desert… But there are more women working in comics in general now, and there are definitely more female-led books with 'X-Men' and 'Fearless Defenders' and 'Captain Marvel.' They're doing awesome."