Kapow! Female Superheroes Are Breaking Comics’ Glass Ceiling

The industry is toning down the catsuits and introducing new female-led titles

Female Superheroes are finally getting their own comic books — (Photos: Dreamstime, Photo Illustration: Robert A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Oct 06, 2016 at 12:00 PM ET

New York Comic Con kicks off Thursday as the comic book industry undergoes a radical transformation, like Peter Parker, post spider-bite. Longtime hotbeds of superhuman masculinity, the Marvel and DC universes are rocketing toward gender parity. Marvel introduced an all-female X-Men book in 2013 and a female Thor in 2014, and DC revealed a revitalized Batgirl with a more sensible costume. And that’s just the start.

Last year, Marvel announced that it would create an all-ladies Avengers team and that there would be two female characters in the All-New, All-Different Avengers series. The company also published Silk, a new title headlined by Cindy Moon, an Asian-American teenager. They also re-imagined the Ms. Marvel series with Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American from Jersey, at the helm. Not to be outdone, DC’s big revamp this year included a number of comics featuring female characters. Holy diversity, Batman!

Historically, mainstream comics companies have been somewhat resistant to female-led superhero stories. A Vocativ analysis of Marvel’s database found nearly three times as many male characters as female characters that have gotten their own series—119 compared to 39—and more than twice as many male than female characters generally. (For the sake of comparison, only characters from Marvel’s “main” universe, Earth-616, were analyzed, and they were only scored as having received their own books if they didn’t share it with another character, if their name was featured in the title and if it ran for at least two issues. The analysis relied on Marvel’s internal data, which may be incomplete in places.)

Just last year, men outnumbered women on Marvel and DC covers roughly 3 to 1, according to comics historian Tim Hanley. Why the hesitance toward giving ladies their own comics? It’s largely because of the belief that comics, superhero comics in particular, are only read by boys and men, according to Trina Robbins, a comics writer, artist and historian. “Well of course that’s nonsense,” she says.

It’s notoriously difficult to nail down good data on that front, but the numbers from Marvel suggests they’re hungry for good female characters. Since the year 2000, Marvel has added 19 titles headlined by female superheroes. And when strong female characters do emerge, they get their own series relatively quickly—three years faster than male characters, on average.  Blogger and comic fan Brett Schenker analyzes the demographics of people who “like” comics on Facebook each month and, most recently, determined that while men account for a majority of comic fans, it’s not overwhelming. Women make up an estimated 43 percent of their readership. When Schenker looked at Facebook fans of superheroes in particular, he found the share of women drop to roughly 34 percent. Annie Bulloch, owner of 8th Dimension Comics & Games in Houston, Texas, estimates that the gender breakdown of people buying superhero comics at her store is about 60 percent men, 40 percent women.

The population of female fans is often estimated to be much lower, though: In 2012, superhero-heavy DC did a reader survey and reported that just 7 percent of respondents found in stores and through digital subscriptions were female (although an online arm of the survey saw the percentage of women rise to 23 percent).

Those numbers aren’t surprising, given how female-unfriendly superhero comics have been. “You look at most superhero comics, especially five or ten years ago, and the women, when they showed up on the cover, were drawn in these bizarre poses with huge breasts and asses that are pointing out,” says Janelle Asselin, a senior editor at Comics Alliance who used to work at DC. “That kind of art isn’t made to appeal to women as readers, and it sends the message that women are not welcome.”

Indeed, superhero comics have largely been made by and for men. Noah Berlatsky, author of the recent book, “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948,” says, “The best-known heroes have been white guys, and the best known creators … have been even more overwhelmingly white men.” These comics have failed in the past to take off with female readers, he argues, because “they basically haven’t made any effort to do so.”

“If you want to hit a female audience, it’s not just about the characters, it’s about how they’re written and how they’re drawn.” — Janelle Asselin

Clearly, that is gradually changing. In the last few years, there has been a slight shift toward costumes for female characters that, as Bulloch puts it, “aren’t, like, dental floss.” Take the new Ms. Marvel: she wears a loose-fitting (by comic book standards) mini-dress with a long-sleeve shirt underneath. A previous Ms. Marvel fought bad guys in a “Baywatch”-esque onesie. Bulloch says this is a smart marketing move. “A lot of women are turned off by that when they see it,” she says of characters drawn in skimpy outfits. She finds that female readers are often looking for comics that feel like they are made for them “and not for some imaginary amalgam of a guy.”

Companies are also, ever so slowly, hiring more women to work behind the scenes on superhero comics. Last year, Hanley found that titles published by DC and Marvel featured 12.1 and 3.4 percent more female creators compared to the same month the previous year. “It’s starting to make sense to even the larger publishers that if you want to hit a female audience, it’s not just about the characters, it’s about how they’re written and how they’re drawn,” says Asselin.

The changes appear to be paying off in sales. Currently, three of the top fifteen best-selling comics on the popular site comiXology are female-led titles and four are male-led, while seven feature either a duo or team with at least one woman. It’s impossible to say how responsible women are for these sales—Marvel declined to comment and DC did not respond to requests by press time – but Schenker has found that 62 percent of Facebook fans of female comic book characters are women.

Guys are buying these comics too, according to Bulloch’s observations. “It turns out there are plenty of men who are interested in women as people and aren’t just there to look at boobs,” she says with a laugh.

In some cases, these contemporary heroines seem to be more popular than the buxom vixens typically associated with comics. A good case study is the Spider-Woman volume that launched in 2014 and sparked enormous controversy with its alternate cover showing the heroine in a decidedly porny pose. The series premiered at the No. 5 spot but quickly sank below 35th in the months that followed. Compare that to Spider-Gwen, which was released last year and features a hip, hoody-wearing heroine. It’s been a consistent top seller this year and has had to be reprinted several times.

Another great example is the female Thor which, as of early last year, was outselling its male-led precursor by roughly 20,000 copies a month.

Robbins says it was only around the turn of the century when the Japanese manga series Sailor Moon took off in the U.S. that it began to dawn on the industry that women might be a valuable target audience. “Up until then, editors and publishers of mainstream comics kept saying, ‘Girls don’t read comics,'” she said. “It took the mainstream companies almost 15 years to understand that not only will girls read comics, but that girls are 52 percent of the population—and that’s a lot money.”

Of course, even with the lure of money, revolution is slow. “There are still far more Batman titles than anything else,” says Robbins. “It’s the beginning of change.”