Recently, I had a customer ask me why there aren’t more women reading comic books, and if, because I am a woman store owner, we had a lot of women shop here. Let’s just say that there’s a rather long answer to those questions.
I’m going to put something out on the table, right here, right now. The comic book industry is dominated by men. That includes both sides — the creator side as well as the fan/reader side. Let me use Sequart.com as an example. I clicked on the “Columns” heading and found fifteen men doing columns, and only two women, including myself. I also clicked on the “Members” heading and looked at the one-hundred most popular member pages. Out of those one-hundred pages, I could find only five women. Now let’s look at the publisher side via Diamond’s Previews catalog. I looked through Marvel’s May solicitations, paging quickly through, glancing at names, and there were plenty of Mikes and Brians, but I only found three women working on any of the major comics: Marvel Adventures #5 has a female cover artist, while Thing #7 and the X-Men Fairy Tales mini-series both have women doing the covers and interior pencils. The only major female comic book creator who works for the big two that I can think of off of the top of my head is Gail Simone, writer for DC. In terms of comic book customers, most stores are happy to have 10% of their customer base be female. We can do better, America!
I think there are a couple of reasons why there aren’t more female comic book readers. One is because the industry is so male superhero dominated, and a lot of women just aren’t into that genre. There are female superheroes too, but often they are not as strong as their male counterparts, and they almost always have breasts that are larger than their heads. My husband refers to them as, “super boobs.” How else can someone jump around fighting crime in a strapless top that barely covers them, without them bouncing right out? As a female comic book reader myself, I am often turned off by a book that shows female superheroes looking this way. But if 90% of the comic book reading population is male, and the male comic book reading population want superhero comics, then I guess the industry feels the need to cater to that market.
Another reason for low female readership of comic books is kind of linked to that — most store owners are male and many of them read only superhero books. When a woman does come in looking for something other than the superhero fare, the retail owner or store employee does not know what to recommend. As I said earlier, a lot of women are looking for more than just a superhero comic book. There are definitely women who read and enjoy those too, but most, even those who do read superhero comics, also tend to look for the non-traditional superhero comic. Some men will just refer a woman to Manhunter or Wonder Woman or She-Hulk. Sure, those are good comic books, but what if your customer, be they male or female, is looking for something other than superheroes? Retail store owners and their employees need to work harder to be familiar with a variety of genres of comic books in order to get more people, not just women, reading comics that interest them. Retailing should not be about the hobby, it should be about growing your business and your knowledge of the industry, in order to — yeah, grow your business.
Let me also mention “scary” stores. These are stores that most women (and probably a lot of men) would be afraid to go into. I was in one myself before we opened this store — it was a major factor in my decision to open Neptune Comics. Usually these “scary” stores are dimly lit, with the windows covered up, jam packed with dusty junk; pin-up girl posters and calendars are a major portion of the decor, and there’s a gruff and unkempt man behind the counter. Sometimes there are a few other men standing around talking gruffly about something like the true origin of Booster Gold or who is really faster: Superman or The Flash; and maybe these guys even smell a little “funky.” Sound more like a local service station than a comic book shop? Unfortunately, there are far too many comic book shops that fit the description. Women feel more comfortable shopping in a place where there are people like them, so having women customers and women employees helps new female customers feel comfortable right off the bat. People also like to feel safe and welcome when they go into a new place. Having lots of light and unobstructed windows where people can see in and out definitely make people feel safer than when they enter a dark store whose windows are essentially boarded up. Keeping the place clean and organized, and greeting visitors with a smile and a “Hello, how are you?” will also help them feel welcome. Keep in mind that these things apply to both men and women. I just think male “fandom” tends to tolerate things like dust and boarded up windows more than women do.
Then, there are you male comic collectors. Yes, you boys hold women back. Not all of you thank goodness, but I have heard my fair share of stories. I have had a couple of wives tell me their husbands won’t “let them” read their comics because they don’t want her to mess them up. If they don’t read them they won’t know if they like them! Come on guys, leave a couple out for her to look at. I know some guys try to force comics onto their women, and that usually doesn’t work either. Do not make your woman feel like she can’t touch comics, and don’t make her feel like she has to love what you love. Just let her know you love them, and that they are there should she decide to check one out, or that you would take her to a nice shop, should she want to pick out something for herself. I have had men come in the store saying they have to be quick because they left their wife in the car rather than having her come in and see what he was spending on comic books. Now I don’t know about you, but I think that’s just wrong, on a couple of levels. But, I have had moms come in and pick up comics for their kids and then come back and tell me they read them and liked them too. So, it is possible for a woman, who might not think she would, read a comic book and enjoy it.
At Neptune Comics we probably do get more regular women shoppers than some other stores. Partially because I am there almost all of the time, and if you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a woman, and I work at a comic book store. But also because we are friendly and have a clean, well lit, open and organized store. We also get a lot more moms bringing their kids in, and wives/girlfriends who are willing to stop in and pick up comics for their husband/boyfriend. We also carry a decent variety of graphic novels and comic books, and try to read a majority of them, so that when people ask for a certain type of book, or just a recommendation that isn’t in the superhero genre, we can help people find something they will really enjoy.
So much of the comic’s past was dominated by an “old boy’s network” of male store owners, male writers and artists, and comics designed to appeal only to men and boys — and an obnoxious “collector mentality” that far fewer women have than men. However, today there are more books that appeal to women, more females participating in the comic book industry as creators and store owners, and more store owners who work to have stores that are welcoming not just to male clients, but to women too. I think the graphic novel market is appealing to women, because they tend to enjoy reading entire stories, and tend to focus less on collecting comics. Plus there are good female writers and artists in the industry — still not enough, but more. I am not sure if the reason is that women aren’t interested in creating comic books, or if it is because it is hard for women to get into an industry dominated by men for so long. I also am not sure why more women don’t read comic books. I would assume it is because they don’t know what they are missing. But those of us who are crazy enough to be comic book retailers, and all of us fans, need to try to grow and adapt the industry so that more and more people, including a larger percentage of women, come into comic book stores for themselves. Then hopefully the industry, which tends to be reactionary, will react to the wider audience, and more women will work on the creative side as well.