Female Leads in Comics:

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

There has been a lot of talk about comics being sexist or DC comics in particular not wanting to hire women and while it can be construed as a problem when DC’s titles went from 12% women creators to 1%, the argument for more female leads in comics just doesn’t fly.Simply put, if sales were better, then there would be more female leads in comics, but the sales just won’t support it.

Green Arrow outsells Wonder Woman and DC Women Kicking Ass somehow thinks this is DC's fault.

In April, the first comic with a female lead on Diamond’s list was Wonder Woman #610 at 50 selling 30,000 copies. The next is Birds of Prey #11 at 56 selling another 30,000. X-23 #9 at 59 with 28,000 issues sold. Gotham City Sirens #22 at 71 selling 24,000. Batgirl #20 at 72 selling 24,000.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Publishers make decisions based on sales and when Wonder Woman is last on the Top 50 list, then what hope do other female leads have? After all, Wonder Woman is arguably the most recognizable and important female comic lead of all time and she can’t even generate enough sales to outsell Green Arrow (which was at #44 with 32,000 issues sold).

Most fans in support of female leads will suggest that more women creators working on female leads will bring more sales to the characters and this is also more faulty logic.

Comic fans are fickle and they tend to go with safe bets, so the same creators are typically promoted time and time again. I’m guilty of it myself which is why I’ll be reading Aquaman because I love Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis. It’s really difficult for new creators (male or female) to successfully break into mainstream comics. While people will point to Jeff Lemire and Jason Aaron as writers who broke from the pack, these are exceptions to the rule that DC and Marvel will safeguard their characters from untested writers (and even though Lemire’s Superboy is the best book on the stands, Superboy himself is hardly a top-tier character). Paul Cornell has been given Action Comics, but he has been working on C-grade books for a long time and writing Dr. Who to get where he is, so he is hardly unproven.

The problems facing female creators isn’t their gender as much as it is just a difficulty with getting into the industry in general. It takes a lot of time to work up a reputation so that publishers will hire you, and even longer for fans to embrace new writers.

So, can we all just stop with this conspiracy against women crap that has been floating around the web since before Flashpoint started? It isn’t a conspiracy so much as basic economics.

- Female leads don’t sell very well.

- It’s difficult for new creators to prove themselves to publishers and . . .

- . . . even if they prove themselves, there is no guarantee that fans will embrace them as new creators because most fans only want what they consider familiar.

Does it suck that female leads can’t sell? If you’re into female leads, then yeah, it sucks. Personally, I don’t read Wonder Woman, but I picked it up this week because of Azzarello and Chiang, and I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, I realize that makes me technically part of the problem, but I like Azzarello and I won’t apologize for it. I think Supergirl was an incredible title during the Sterling Gates run and I’ve heard nothing but good things about Q’s run on Batgirl, but by and large, I just don’t read a lot of books with female leads. This isn’t some sort of conscious decision on my part so much as I just pick up books I’m interested in (for instance, Rucka and J.H. Williams III on Batwoman was an absolutely incredible run and I look forward to more from Williams on it). The point is that just because someone wants more of something, doesn’t mean that everyone wants it. I wanted Kyle Rayner to be Green Lantern forever, but his sales weren’t strong enough to have him sustain the title, so they brought back Hal Jordan. Sales are are the most important motivating factor in comics, so we shouldn’t take things so personal when stories don’t go the way we want.

This post stems from San Diego Comic-Con where a fan in a Batgirl costume kept bringing up gender issues at the DC comics panels. One of the comments that got me from her interview with DC Women Kicking Ass, “I said, ‘If you do want to read a comic about a woman like that, would you please stand up now?’ Nearly all of the room stood up. I said, ‘This is your market, DC,’ and sat down.”

It’s funny that she considered that particular audience to be enough to prove her point when the numbers just don’t match. Furthermore, these are people at a DC Comics panel – I could have gone in and said, “If you want to read a comic about Ambush Bug and Lobo in a buddy cop comic, please stand up” and the room would have agreed (maybe not as enthusiastically given that I am not a woman in a Batgirl costume).

Female leads in comics are incredibly important – this should be a given – but until the market shows a greater interest in them, then DC won’t publish more female lead books and they shouldn’t be expected to until then either. I understand that some fans might want to see more female leads or more females to be in prominent roles, but you know what? I want Captain Marvel and the Shazam family to have their own title again, but sales probably wouldn’t support it. The difference between what I want and what DC Women Kicking Ass wants is that gender is attached to her cause and automatically gives her cause a sense of nobility that my cause doesn’t inherently have even though both wants are equally economically unfeasible.

Finally, there are plenty of people who decry DC’s decision to bring Barbara Gordon back to the role of Batgirl because of various reasons, the biggest of which being that she was a role model for disabled people as Oracle. But for all the complaints people have about the relaunched Batgirl title, they can’t be too offended considering that it sold over 100,000 copies and is getting a second printing. If people are really that upset, then sales wouldn’t be that high. Batgirl sold incredibly well, but it doesn’t disprove anything that I’ve written here. It’s a comic connected to a controversy and written by an industry professional that has a strong following. Only time will tell if Batgirl has the (yeah, I’m going for it) legs to continue selling as well as it has.

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website PopgunChaos.com and the co-creator of the crime comic NoirCityComicBook.com . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Cody Walker:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh: Understanding Grant Morrison\'s Batman


Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

editor, contributor


  1. Cody,
    It seems like part of the problem you point out is that many fans follow their favorite creators, and this is what really drives the sale of books in many regards. Obviously, it’s not the only driving factor, but it does seem to be one of the more influential issues. You pointed to a few examples of where you were willing to try out (and then enjoy) some female-led titles as a result of the positive combination of reliable / high-quality artists who’ve already built a sort of credibility base with you. While anecdotal, your experience seems to mirror many other readers / collectors whom I’ve talked to in the past as well. For example, I’m not a fan of detective stories but I do like a lot Bendis and Oeming’s individual works, so I was more than willing to give “Powers” a try.

    Now, what do you suppose would happen with sales if DC prioritized increased diversity (gender, ethnicity, fill-in-the-blank) in their titles and created incentives for these high-profile talents to boost sales in these other titles that starred some different lead characters? Of course, I realize these sorts of artists will cost more up front, but it seems that they might also attract more readers. In the long run, wouldn’t there be at least a reasonable chance the books could see some real improvement in sales?

    Like you, I’m not one to really batter down the walls when there are some practical obstacles like sales–while not to Romantic, it is a reality these publishers have to face. However, I can’t help but think that there aren’t some ways to work with these constraints and still improve diversity some. And perhaps having more diversity in the titles could open more doors for diversity in the workplace? Who knows, but I do think it’d be worth their looking into it.

    • I totally agree with you about your statement about readers following creators plus also artistic teams and line ups. I can almost grantee that if Grant Morrison or Joss Whedon was signed onto write almost any female character it would become a best selling comic easily. I think the days of people collecting characters “just cause it’s so-so” are pretty much over. Sure, there are the people like myself who will still buy it even if it is crap purely because I don’t want number #607 missing from my collection despite it being horrible, most newbie comic book readers I know will jump onto anything if its good and drop it if its bad, not really caring for the numbering at all. Mind you, most of the newbie readers I know wait for the softbacks or hardcovers. Yet, my friendship circle certainty does not represent the main trends in new readership. My main point is that people will follow people whom they love, trust, and enjoy reading.

  2. David Balan says:

    But you’re only counting one potential market, Cody: people who are already comics fans. Of course comics fans are going to be insular, that’s the way the industry works – but catering to comics fans, comics fans, and more comics fans is not going to be a successful business model.

    We’ve tried it. For the past decade. It hasn’t worked. We need NEW readers. To do that, we need to offer a greater diversity of stories with a greater diversity of casts. I’m not going to say that it’s some evil agenda that white male superhero books dominate the market right now, but it is the truth, motivated by money or no. In the short term, yes, producing higher quality stories with more diversity might not instantly jump the market – but I’d be willing to bet it will in the long term.

    Besides, I’d take the riskier bet with the better stories for the higher payoff any day, rather than the safe sell. Safe sells work short term, but they don’t expand your market.

    Not to mention the fact that if writers were forced to step up their quality of writing on female characters (most female characters in superhero comics don’t act remotely female – and that’s not to say they should be “in the kitchen”, it’s that if they’re female and they kick ass, most writers just write them like males with boobs. That’s…. not how it works.) it would improve overall quality of comic stories, which we desperately need. But that’s not really connected to the money argument.

    Now, as for female creators being hired, for the most part, I’m with you – I remember perusing the list of female creators that petition was suggesting to DC, and realizing only a precious few of them had the skills to work in mainstream comics, and even then – do they have the inclination? Mainstream comics have been a boys’ club for awhile – it’s not necessarily a club that says “NO GURLZ ALLOWED” anymore, but the subject matter and stories they create don’t tend to appeal to women – on the consumer end OR the creative end.

    For the women that it does appeal to, work hard and get some skills, then go for it. I personally know of one woman creator in mainstream comics who’s doing quite well for herself. That’s not evidence for an entire gender, certainly, but I don’t think a history of prejudice warrants hiring any poor artists now. It IS difficult to get into the industry, you gotta pay your dues, male or female.

    Great article by the way, I love how you’re unafraid to tackle complex social issues!

    • Cody Walker says:

      “We need NEW readers. To do that, we need to offer a greater diversity of stories with a greater diversity of casts.” – Note: I never once stated that we don’t need a greater diversity of characters or casts. That was never the intent of this article. The point was to show that as much as people like DC Women Kicking Ass wants to make it seem like more female characters will increase sales, the numbers simply don’t show that it has worked. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t attempted, but people who act as if the big answer is to throw more women in a comic, just aren’t looking at the issues.

      For example, James Robinson’s Justice League. In that comic four of the seven members were women. In fact, the most powerful and influential characters were women. Did it sell well? No. In fact, DC Women Kicking Ass never mentions the comic, but still she insists that a female super-team would bring in more readers.

      Really, I think Sam Reveley is probably more right about all of this stuff than I am.

      • Yes, and Robinson’s Justice League is exactly the problem. Because while I love Robinson, it was the same old paradigm. You can’t add a girl wrestler and then wonder why chicks aren’t watching. If that makes sense.

      • Here’s the key line: “DC Women Kicking Ass wants to make it seem like more female characters will increase sales, the numbers simply don’t show that it has worked.”

        There’s no way to argue that more female characters by themselves will increase sales. But that’s a stupid argument. (I haven’t seen DC Women Kicking Ass exactly making it, but I know the sentiment you’re reacting too. It’s sometimes implicit, beneath the cries for more female leads.) It’s an extreme argument, and it doesn’t represent the bulk of those concerned about women in comics.

        So by all means, shoot it down. But it might help the reaction you get if you say, “For the record, I’m concerned about women in comics too. I’d like to see more female leads and more female readers. But there’s a history here that we’ve got to address, in talking about this.”

        I think the real argument isn’t that there’s some conspiracy against female leads at all. The history doesn’t show that.

        Rather, it’s that these female characters are shallow and uninteresting. Yes, often copies of men but in women’s bodies. And their stories aren’t done all that well, generally. And they’re in a genre too often defined by muscle-bound and big-titted thin girls fighting with super-powers, which isn’t exactly the most interesting thing to most girls.

        Does this help at all?

      • First off, let me just say that I’m really enjoying reading all the very thoughtful, passionate, and interesting articles on this site, tackling tough and important topics in comics. I am a longtime reader of comics (over 40 years) and primarily (although not exclusively) read comics that feature, in some capacity, superheroines. I find women with super powers fascinating, especially when well-written, which is, unfortunately, not that often.

        I was moved to respond to this particular response because of the mention of James Robinson’s Justice League. I like the Justice League. I like Donna Troy, Supergirl and Jade. I have liked a lot of what James Robinson has written in comics. What I loathed to the point of distraction, was Justice League: Cry for Justice, written by James Robinson. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I couldn’t bear to do much more than read the first couple of issues of his Justice League story… and that says a lot. I will suffer through a lot of crap to support female characters in comics. AND, as a gay man, I will suffer through a lot to support characters of different sexuality (as is the blue Starman in Robinson’s title). But sadly, I just found Robinson’s writing to be truly quite bad in Cry for Justice, and then, sadly, not much better in Justice League.

        All this is to say that the point is, sometimes a comic doesn’t sell well because it’s poorly written. That’s not always the reason (Bryan Q. Miller’s Batgirl was one of the better written comics around) but for me, despite my willingness to put up with quite a bit to support women characters in comics, it was a big reason why I didn’t read Robinson’s inexplicably poorly written Justice League.

  3. Sam Reveley says:


    There is one huge factor that you need to consider in your argument: most women do not have much interest in DC/Marvel comics. That is not to say women do not have interest in comics at all. There are certainly more women in the comic strip industry and the manga-esque industry than there are in the mainstream section. Why is this? If you are a female creator and you never read the books that DC and Marvel sell, than you arguable wouldn’t have any real interest in drawing/writing for them.

    Why do most women not have interest in reading or working for DC and/or Marvel? (The keyword here is most, I’m certainly an exception myself.) Because most of their lineup features stories that are action-oriented, man-against-state story types as opposed to a more diversifed genre lineup including dramas or romances that activate more of the emotional side of the brain. That and most of the leads are male. Even the female leads are rather masculine in the way they handle things (wonder woman is a great example). Manga once filled that niche of comics that featured female protagonists who were genuinely feminine in character. That is one reason why the genre was so powerful for a long time.

    Take Card Captor Sakura – she was very popular to girls because she had super-like powers but also relied heavily on her friends help and assistance to achieve her goals. Moreover, sometimes fighting wasn’t even an option that was considered – the villian would need comforting or talking to instead. In an nutshell, I’d say some themes that a more feminine lead would need are the importance of friendship and community, love and dedication, and of course many gender neutral themes such as courage, trust, and will power.

    At the college I am attending, our sequential art department is now split fairly evenly between men and women. I can tell you right now that almost every women I’ve met started drawing in the manga style (because that’s what we read when we were young!). Very few of the women draw in a style that would resemble Marvel or DC comics repetoire. Most draw with roots in manga or Disney movies. This is because those are the stories we read when we were young and its where are roots are.

    At any case, what this means for mainstream comics is that there is a reason that the female leads don’t sell and why women aren’t hired often. The reason their female leads don’t sell is because with all things considered, their female leads are men in skirts (there are certainly exceptions but not enough to trully reach out to a female audience). The reason why women aren’t hired is because most women are not interested. Mainstream comics are catering to a specific audience and have been for a long time. Since its been working for them, I can understand why they wouldn’t want to change that. This just leaves room for is other companies to fill the niches in the audience that mainstream is missing. Manga may die out, but something will come to replace it. If I were going to predict what, I would say indy comics, lesser known comic publishers, and webcomics.

    Really and trully, I think the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization would do well to branch out their attention in response to this. So much is written about mainstream comics which really only caters to one audience type: young men. Where are the reviews of manga, webcomics, and indy comics? Where are the reviews of Maus or Blankets? That is the kind of analytical writing I would enjoy reading alongside what’s published now.

    • I have to say I agree about super-heroes. Yes, one can expand the female audience. But it’s a little like professional wrestling or monster trucks. Or the romance genre for girls. I don’t hear the romance novel industry crying, “Where are the male readers?”

      I think one can write super-heroes better. Fight scenes are not obligatory. Character works. Men like those things too, and they’re likely to at least expand the female readership.

      And as Sequart’s publisher, I agree completely that we need to cover manga and indy comics better. We used to do a lot of that, and I think everyone here does read them. It’s something I want us to get better on.

    • Sam, great point about how this gender-bias is (in many ways) an institutional one. Studying multiethnic women’s lit this summer, I really struggled to find many women creators involved in comics–not just inking or doing letters (not that these don’t help serve an important role), but serving as primary driving forces behind the publication of the stories. And as you point out, Manga and the indie publishers were the fields where I could find the most work. Perhaps some of the heat from this relaunch will help motivate a shift in how these characters are portrayed and we can see a real influx of new readers? In doing so, it may facilitate a greater diversity in the publishing company and in the books. If they truly want to be more inclusive–they don’t need to lower the standard for quality, as Cody points out, but perhaps they should consider changing the “rules of the game” as you mention?

  4. Sam Reveley says:

    “Where are the reviews of manga, webcomics, and indy comics? Where are the reviews of Maus or Blankets? That is the kind of analytical writing I would enjoy reading alongside what’s published now.”

    Reading that over, I think I worded it rather strongly. I’ve read a lot of content from Sequart that covers other types of comics so that was not fair of me to say. What I should say is I really enjoy reading those articles and would love to see more of them.

    • It didn’t come across as harsh at all, Sam. It’s an excellent point you’re making, and we appreciate the advice. It’s clear that you respect Sequart and are trying to help. No need to apologize for it.

      If you want more of those articles, though, why not try writing one? We have an open submissions policy, and we would appreciate more along the lines you suggest. It’s not like we’re turning down material because it’s indy or girl-friendly. It’s always a matter of who’s going to write it.

      But no worries on your comment. I thought it was great.

    • Cody Walker says:

      I completely agree with Julian. We love having different opinions (as evidenced by the fact that I seem to disagree with everyone in a very loving way) and I’d be more than happy to read what you’re interested in.

      The reason I write about mainstream comics so much is that is what I’m personally interested in. I read Rasl and Locke and Key and a few Vertigo books, but outside of those, I’m really a traditional comic reader. That’s just my personal taste, but I’m always interested in what others like.

      Also, thank you for writing, “The reason their female leads don’t sell is because with all things considered, their female leads are men in skirts (there are certainly exceptions but not enough to trully reach out to a female audience).” – I’ve thought that for some time, but I worried that was only my opinion.

      Seriously, I loved your comment and really appreciate the thoughtfulness of your response. It was insightful and wonderful!

  5. Cody,

    I feel that you are rationalizing the phallocentric, highly sexist comic industry because: hey, that is what sales. Fake rape porn sales quite well in Japan but that does not make it any less wrong. What we are facing is perhaps one of the gravest ills towards anyone which is the complete dehumanizing of a gender.

    And you can bring up the economics of it all, but at some point art has to stand for something and the world you are describing is a world based solely on choices of cost and not expression, not creativity. That is why this world we run in scares the shit out of me.

    This is not how it should be. So, why stand on the other side. What is wrong with actively working to open more doors to women, people of other ethinicities and pan genders?

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money. I want to say that. But if your base inspiration is to make money you are not making art, you are making a product. You are making a fucking toaster. We are trying to show that comics can be, and are, something more than that toaster.

    Sorry. Didn’t mean to shit all over your article. No disrespect meant or intended.

    • Cody Walker says:

      “What we are facing is perhaps one of the gravest ills towards anyone which is the complete dehumanizing of a gender.” – Jeez – hyperbolize much? While there are certainly plenty of instances where women are portrayed in a not so flattering way (the latest issues of Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws being the biggest offenders), I think the industry is far from dehumanizing. It may very well be gender biased, but DEHUMANIZING is over the line. Then again, I wrote an article completely against Women in Refrigerators.

      “But if your base inspiration is to make money you are not making art, you are making a product. You are making a fucking toaster. We are trying to show that comics can be, and are, something more than that toaster.” – This is the absolute last time I will say this because I realize that it doesn’t matter how many times I type it out, no one is going to agree with me, but it’s absolutely true:


      Yes, they are a product that we love, but make no mistake about it THEY ARE A PRODUCT. There is nothing wrong with being a product, but it bothers me when people elevate comics and hold them to a standard of high Art.

      I’m honestly so sick of this argument and this discussion of sales that I won’t discuss it any longer. I’ve beat this horse to death, resurrected it, and beat it to death again.

      • Let me cut through the bullshit. You guys are both mostly going after straw men by reacting against very extreme points of view.

        In other words, someone might say that comics hate women because there aren’t more female stars. That’s a ridiculously extreme point of view. It’s coming out of understandable frustration, but it’s obviously wrong, in terms of what it’s actually saying. Now, I haven’t seen this articulated, and I think most are more responsible than this. But this sentiment is indeed out there, and it underlies some (not all) of the complaints about the lack of female protagonists.

        So Cody comes along and says, look, you’re basically complaining about the audience, not the producers. Because this shit sells. And this is a market. You can bitch all you want about stupid summer action blockbusters, but they’re called blockbusters for a reason.

        Which is all well and good. And useful, I think, to say.

        But what others feel from this isn’t what’s being said. Cody might well want more female leads. He’s just saying it’s not some secret misogynistic conspiracy. That’s it and that’s all. But what others hear in this is a justification. An underlying argument that anything is okay, as long as it sells.

        And so watch people respond to Cody, saying comics are more than just a product and that sales can’t justify bad things.

        Which again is good and fine and useful.

        But I can’t help but think that all of this is only reactionary. Only responding to the most extreme points of view.

        Because most people, I’d like to believe, do get that comics have to sell or they’re going to get cancelled. That’s a fact of life and of art, one true beyond comics as well.

        Equally, most people, I’d like to believe, do understand that “hey, it sells!” is no defense for objectionable portrayals. There might be a market for blackface vaudeville today, but that wouldn’t make it okay.

        And really, I’ve got to believe that all of us recognize this.

        The problem is that both Cody and Kevin tend to go to extremes. (I may too, but I’ll leave myself out of this for now.) And by putting things in such an extreme way, you both invite others to read a more extreme argument than you’re really making.

        So Cody, comics are a product. But that is not the full sum and total of what they are. Nor ever has this been the case. They might typically exist to sell (not 100% the case but close). But this is different from existing merely to keep existing. There are mini-series. Creators leave, intending to do great things and not necessarily to keep the title going strong forever. So while you’re right, you make it sound like what you’re saying is the end of an argument, in which sales justify anything, instead of a useful corrective made at the beginning of one. And no, that’s not treating comics like high art — which is certainly commercial too. We criticize movies all the time in the same way comics are being criticized now.

        And Kevin, yeah, there’s a way in which most comics are probably always going to be toasters. That doesn’t mean they can’t be art too. That doesn’t mean creators can’t try their hardest to at least deliver solid entertainment. But it’s nice to acknowledge that yes, big companies publishing comics are going to treat them at least in part like a product. And while you’re right that this fact doesn’t let publishers off the hook for anything, really, it does mean that what’s published is a lot more complex than “here’s what we feel like publishing, and we don’t want to have ladies in it.” It is a market, and the audience plays an important factor, as does public perception or hype.

        Does anything I’m saying make sense?

      • Please don’t shut down debate, because you’re written on this, and I don’t think it’s fair to do so and then not discuss it.

        Any banazlization of human life and dignity is not hyperbole at all. It is a highlight on the plight and issues that face a very specific group of people we are ostracizing and leaving out.

        But what is perhaps most incendiary is the theme of “If you don’t like it, you can just stop reading these fictional characters or my article.”

        Julian — I don’t think this is bullshit at all. While I do tend to the extreme I am hyper sensitive to what I perceive as a stupid ideas that run comics. Chasing after the all mighty dollar has not done much other than to get Hollywood to give Comic Books some uncomfortable back rubs and promises of more to come.

        What is really being highlighted between Cody and I is a difference in philosophy. He tackles his from that end and I tackle mine from the other.

        I do want to say this is nothing personal Cody. I don’t think there is need to get angry. It is just some guys talking about the nature of comics and where they are going.

      • I think we’re all getting a bit over-the-top here.

        Kevin, I didn’t say what you said was bullshit. I said it sounded extreme. And that Cody was also sounding extreme. That’s how this ends up being a shouting match, instead of a discussion. Give a little.

        I do like this diversity of viewpoint, though, and I’m proud it’s on Sequart. But let’s remember, as you say, that it’s a debate. A vigorous, passionate debate. But one between people who love comics and want to see them both get better and sell more.

    • Wait… fake rape porn is wrong? I don’t think that at all, honestly. It might not be tasteful, but it has a right to exist. And I’m glad it exists, ugly thought it may be. It’s part of the full spectrum of human sexuality, and to all of the weird expressions of that, as long as they’re legal, I say a resounding “yay!” Whether I want to personally look at it or not.

      The problem isn’t fake rape porn. It’s when all porn becomes rape porn. Or its tropes becoming commonplace in Hollywood movies. Or super-hero comics.

      If you catch my distinction.

Leave a Reply