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Vincent S. Moore Presents:

Where Have All The Fangirls Gone?

I didn’t learn my lesson the last time. So I am jumping into the middle of a mess that doesn’t necessarily involve me. Mostly because I’m a glutton for punishment and attention.

See, when I started writing this column my second outing was a wonderful piece entitled “Why It Fails When Fangirls Attack.” Needless to say, such a title alone was enough to spark some anger, frustration, and a general state of what-the-fuck-atude from the then hot and heavy fangirl movement. When Googling myself (come on, like I’m the only one), that column tends to come up as the first item listed, even before my editing credits. Which I am, in a way, very proud of.

All of which I owe to my then daily ritual of checking out When Fangirls Attack for that day’s gossip, scandal, and cause célébre in the world of comics feminism.

Notice how much the past tense is showing up in the opening paragraphs.

Because, for some reason, I no longer feel the need to check into what’s going on with comics feminism or with what was once both the hub and hotbed for a lot of talk about comics and women, and women in comics, and the comics industry’s war on women in comics, and women reading comics, and a gazillion other topics. Not due to my not caring about such things; as I said at the time, I have no horse in this race. I believe that comics should be for everyone who wants to read them and that I’m much more of a humanist than a feminist. I don’t hold the female view as being more important or better than the male one. I’m more interested in enjoying the differences and in finding the balance between the two.

Yet I was one of many who did feel the need to see what the hell all the controversy was setting the Internets ablaze each day by checking out WFA.

And now, I don’t so much.

What does this mean?

Is comics feminism, as we knew it, dead? Is it merely sleeping? Or has it just burned itself out, as all movements begun with a burning passion tend to do?

I don’t know, but it might just be worthwhile to find out.

First off, let’s look at a very selective Year In Review regarding comics for and by women, shall we?

One important item to note is the rise and fall of DC Comics’ attempt at capturing some of market for comics aimed at young women started by the manga craze. The short-lived imprint’s name was Minx and from the very beginning it seemed doomed to failure. Some questioned the choice of name. Some wondered if DC could even produce comics for teenaged girls that could appeal to them. And it looks as though DC themselves were unsure about such things, given how they approached the whole line. Even with a sizable (by comics industry standards) advertising budget, Minx did not reach its intended audience. What I saw of the books, the Minx line did try to capture that manga feel in terms of size and shape and art choices. All to no avail, as DC pulled the plug a full year into the experiment, as the line struggled to find its place at chain bookstores struggling themselves to stay alive in the downward moving American economy.

On the other hand, Dark Horse’s Buffy Season Eight is still going strong. Spearheaded by the show’s creator Joss Whedon, Buffy stands as one perfect model for comics that can bring in and sustain a large female readership. Balancing action with relationship drama, solid comics storytelling and middle of the road art, Buffy could be quietly setting the new standard for comics for some years to come.

Still, comics with strong heroines continue to struggle, as the cancellations of Marvel’s She-Hulk and DC’s Manhunter prove. Manhunter was a particularly interesting case as the book had been threatened with cancellation almost from the time it began. The latest return for the book has become its last hurrah. Manhunter seemed perfectly placed as superhero book that could appeal to women, with solid stories and art that told the story without sexualizing the heroine the way many superhero comics do. Yet, Manhunter has been shown the door once again.

The numbers of superheroine comics is shrinking as the year draws to a close.

However, the grandmother of all superheroines, Wonder Woman, is undergoing a renaissance guided by the sure hands of Gail Simone. I’ve long been a fan of Wonder Woman. I worried as DC struggled in recent years to find both the right person to guide the Amazing Amazon’s adventures and to grow readers for the first superheroine. Within two issues of Simone’s run, I worried no more. Especially once Aaron Lopresti was added as regular artist. Lopresti’s style perfectly suits Wonder Woman, being equally sexy and real, dynamic and powerful. With Simone and Lopresti shaping the book, Wonder Woman is a joy to read and something that I’ve noticed more women buying in my retail secret identity. So there is something to give DC some props for as the year ends.

And let me not forget the current Vixen mini-series being written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Cafu, being the only title featuring an African woman on the stands. With only three issues out at this writing, the story is shaping up into an excellent adventure blending superheroics with current politics and feminist issues.

Now, I know I’m skipping over any number of events, good and bad, that happened in 2008. All in all though, 2008 was a year of ups and downs for comics by and aimed at women. But that is not so different from the year in comics in general. Books featuring men were canceled. Lines and companies came and went. However if one is part of a group underserved by comics to begin with, every loss can feel like a death in the family or an attack upon a whole group. I can understand. But life does go on.

As do the questions.

I mean, what were and/or are the fangirls really fighting for anyway?

We read about the buzz phrases all the time. You know, female friendly comics and good stories. But what exactly are these anyway? How does one quantify these qualities?

Naruto could be held up as one example of a female friendly book. It has a high female readership, higher than usual for what is plainly a boy’s manga. But why? Could it be because the stories about about finding one’s place in the world? I can see how that would resonate with boys and girls alike. Could it be because the art does not necessarily sexualize the female characters? Possibly. My own theory is that the art not only doesn’t oversexualize the female characters but that there is little visible distinction made between the male and female characters. If you look at Naruto this way, you could argue that many girls identify with Naruto himself moreso than with Sakura.

So, is a not so sexualized art style one key to creating female friendly comics? Possibly. But neither America superhero comics nor manga are free from so called good girl art. And in some cases, there are plenty of manga readers that buy titles with very sexy women depicted within the pages. Bleach comes to my mind and there are probably others as well.

And what is meant by good stories? Aren’t all stories by some definition good, if they are published?

I don’t know.

What I do know, or rather what I did learn this year is that there are definite differences between stories preferred by men and by women. A typical kind of male story is all action, possibly involving the end of the world. Meanwhile a typical female story is all emotion and internal processes. Very easy to see why superhero comics, with their focus on action and saving the world, might not necessarily appeal to very many women in general. But some of the best superhero comics, like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, have done good jobs balancing action with melodrama. So what’s the problem?

Could the problem be that some but not all of the fangirls are thinking that the typical female story is the definition of what makes a good story?

Again, I don’t know.

But I would say that merely switching from one gender’s definition of what makes a good story to another’s runs contrary to the message of equality feminism touts. Isn’t there room for both kinds of stories? Why can’t superhero comics balance the kinds of stories being told, putting male and female stories together? I don’t know. That choice is for each writer and editor to make. Besides why do superhero comics have to make room for more female readers anyway?

What were and/or are the fangirls fighting for?

Just how many women are even interested in reading action adventure/superhero comics? I don’t think there is this silent majority of women out there chomping at the bit to buy superhero comics.

I think there are women of all ages that do want to read comics. Just not necessarily superhero ones. Or even better superhero comics that are aimed to their sensibilities. As I was reminded when a customer told me of his adventures running the library at the school where he works. He told me of one girl that approached him interested in reading about Spider-Man but found most of the graphic novels in the library boring for her. Rather than being flustered, this gentleman guided the young woman to the Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane hardcovers on the shelves. In short order, this girl went through one volume and then the next and is looking forward to reading more. Since SPLMJ focuses more on the relationships surrounding Mary Jane and how the adventures of Spider-Man affect them than the adventures of Spider-Man himself, this one example could show that the fight over more female friendly superhero comics is working from a faulty premise.

On a similar point, are women, in general, even interested in the sorts of idealized female characters featured in superhero comics? Or are they more interested in less idealized ones?

After reading Passionate Ink by Angela Knight, the erotic romance novelist, I would be tempted to say the answer to the latter question is yes and the answer to the former is no. The chapter focusing on heroines shows many statements from Ms. Knight’s readers attesting to the lack of interest in perfect or perfected heroines. It is a stretch for me to claim the desires of romance readers are the same as superhero readers. Yet it is hard to ignore the voices of these women; they do not speak for all women but they do speak for those who help make romance novels at least 50% of all paperbacks sold in bookstores.

That’s more than read superhero comics.

So there may never be a large number of women interested in reading superhero comics at all. Even if any number of changes are made to make these comics more female friendly.

So what are the fangirls really fighting for?

I mean, let’s face facts, the overall consumer base for comics in general, despite manga, is shrinking. All the write-ups in the literary magazines and all the movies are not really stemming the losses. The American comics industry is growing smaller, not larger.

The American comics industry needs to attract more readers if it is to survive and thrive.

Let’s face another fact, women in America are the largest consumer base. They buy the most products and more kinds of products.

Ergo, the American comics industry has to do what manga has done and begin courting women consumers.

But how, beyond the calls for more female friendly comics and good stories?

As an example, Comics Ink--where I work on occasion--can count only 8 to 10% of its total costumer base as being female. If that is what the overall number is for the industry as whole, then how to do you grow that number?

Could getting more women to work at comics shops or to open comics shops help? I don’t know. Anecdotally, I can say I do notice more black people shopping at Comics Ink than I do at other shops in Los Angeles. Is it because most of the staff has been and is black? I can’t say really. But it might be true. And it might work if more girls and women see women working behind the counter.

Providing a clean, well lit place for women to buy comics might help as well. But it’s hard. Chain bookstores are creating a generation of comics/manga buying women all to used to spending time on the shop floor reading. For many comics shops, that will not do or can’t be done. So how do you create an atmosphere that encourages more women to enter without disrupting the needs for flow through?

Maybe any or all of the Big Four comics publishers--Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Image, in case you didn’t know--should pursue partnerships with Romance publishers and/or publishers of Young Adult books. It makes perfect business sense that if a company doesn’t know how to do something, then it should partner up with a company that does. Romance and Young Adult publishers know how to create books that sell to young girls and women; most comics publishers do not. So why not pair up and see what happens?

I’m sure there are many other approaches that could be attempted.

Could any or all of these work? Possibly. However, enough time and patience would have to be given to see whatever would result. As we saw with DC and Minx, a year and a mere (?!?) $125,000 advertising budget alone will not do the job. More has to be done.

And that’s what all the fighting was about, right?

I mean, what were and/or are the fangirls really fighting for?

Comics, plain and simple.

Comics feminism may be tired and burned out from my perspective. Others may see it differently. But comics as a medium is more than big enough for all the voices wanting to be heard and for those who want to listen. Comics as an industry, especially superhero comics publishers, may just have to grow up and out.

It isn’t too late.

Although it may seem that way sometimes.

A couple Saturdays ago, I was talking with one of my regular female customers. For a while there the number of comics she was buying had been shrinking. In recent weeks, however, the situation turned around and her stack, modest compared to other regulars, had grown. As a lover of comics like me, this was a good sight to see. As she shopped, a person I will assume to be her mother walked through the store as well. The cover of the latest Savage Tales from Dynamite caught her eyes, with its ass shot of Red Sonja on full display. This sighting sparked a comment from my customer about female friendly comics and how does the industry expect to attract more women with images like that seemingly everywhere. This, in turn, sparked a conversation about getting more women into reading comics and into comics shops. No final answer was reached. But I was glad for the conversation.

See, I don’t think there will be an all-in-one solution to this problem. I think there will be many solutions offered. Some will work and others will not. And I think that in the end, both men and women will find the right comics for them, be they superhero or autobio or horror or science fiction or anything else that’s out there. Some may be female friendly and some may not be. In the end, we will buy our comics together and we will buy them separately. But we will all buy and read comics.

I guess I do have a horse in this race after all.

The horse I’m betting on is comics.

And I think the fangirls would agree with me on that one.

Namaste, everyone. May whatever holiday you celebrate (hey, I’m a Buddhist, so I have to be generic here) bring you happiness, family, and joy. May we all have what we wish for in 2009.

See y’all next year! 

Vincent S. Moore




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