The Invisible Women

Women have been creators as long as there have been comics. So why the preoccupation with gender?

by Nicole Puglise


The second annual Women in Comics Convention was held in the Bronx on March 12, 2016.

The dozens of emails I sent over the past year to some of the country’s best female comic creators didn’t get a ton of replies. There are many possible explanations for this: insurmountable workload, too many requests, unattended inbox, interviews handled by publishers or publicists, or maybe just plain disinterest.

My own theory is that my plea to discuss “the relevancy of gender in discussions of superhero comics” was just too annoying to elicit anything better than an automatic delete. What could be more aggravating to a woman in comics than yet another request for her thoughts on gender in the industry?

If I’m right, little wonder. Women who work as editors, writers, pencillers, inkers, colorists and letterers get asked the same questions over and over again again about their place in the field. Jan Duursema, longtime artist on Dark Horse’s Star Wars run, said every interview includes the “woman in comics” question. Alitha Martinez, who pencilled big Marvel titles like Iron Man or X-Men as well as her own creations, said questioners are always more interested in what it is like to be a woman in comics than they are about her work. Ahead of a Chicago convention in March, Marguerite Bennett was answering questions from various news outlets. “. . . Wow, do some folks only like asking *~lady questions~*” she Tweeted between interviews. Judging by her joking replies to male followers, the list contained such queries as: “Who are your feminist influences?” “Do you see yourself as a role model for girls?” “What are your favorite books by women?” And the dreaded: “What is it like to be a woman in comics?” “I’m so torn about stuff like this,” Bennett wrote. “But sugar, I only got so much patience for being asked to solve sexism in ten questions or less.”

But perhaps Kelly Sue DeConnick, the well-known writer of Captain Marvel, captured the frustration best in an interview with Vanity Fair: “I hate when I get asked, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in comics?’” . . . “‘Well, I sit around typing with my vagina, but that gets uncomfortable after a while.’ The notion that somehow women are wildly different infuriates me. Fuck those people.”

“‘Well, I sit around typing with my vagina, but that gets uncomfortable after a while.’ The notion that somehow women are wildly different infuriates me. Fuck those people.”

Nearly every comic con features at least one well attended panel on women and comics. “Women of Marvel” was one of seven, by my count, at 2015’s New York Comic Con, its audience packed with aspiring female comic creators, cosplayers, and fans till there was standing room only. Even the controversial all-male panel discussing the history of female creators at Denver Comic Con last year was one of 16 other panels on the subject. A quick Google search of “women in comics” returns more than 66 million results. Many of these seek to educate readers on the  history of female cartoonists, to promote women or to discuss their hard-earned achievements.

The inquiry never seems to lose relevance, and not without reason. Despite widespread success in graphic novels or web comics, women are still a minority in the superhero genre which dominates the shelves of bookstores and comic shops. Women at the “Big Two” publishers, Marvel and DC, make up around 15 percent of their creative staffs—that’s about a hundred on the staff of each company—and the number seems to be slashed every time a company reboots, relaunches, or Rebirths its line, as DC Comics labeled its latest reorganization.

Mixed in with those millions of female-positive Google hits are tales of harassment or exclusion, along with outraged reactions to controversial depictions of female characters, including rape threats against their critics from internet trolls. The director of Angouleme, a prestigious French comic festival, recently told Le Monde that women have made no significant contributions to the history of comics. And in April, a comics veteran lost her job as an editor, while a known male harasser remained protected and safe in his.

Despite the high profile success of female creators like DeConnick or Duursema, the trope of comics as a “boys club” lingers on. It’s clear that despite the impressive achievements of women in the field, despite the steadily growing numbers of women who have found a way to thrive as creators, and despite their protestations to the contrary, women in superhero comics are often as much of a token as the Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm, and not much more visible.

There is an exasperation recognition among women in the industry. As much as DeConnick seems to hate being asked about gender, in March, she retweeted the portfolios of hundreds of aspiring female creators to give them more visibility. Gail Simone, a widely acclaimed writer and critic, frequently tweets a similar bafflement over the tired old gender question, as do many of her peers. “Isn’t it amazing that this is still a story?” Simone tweeted in response to a since-deleted article on girls reading comics too.

It is, but it isn’t.

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Ramona Fradon at Big Apple Con, March 5, 2016

Ramona Fradon at Big Apple Con, March 5, 2016

Ramona Fradon pencilled an issue of the Fantastic Four once, though she’s best known for Aquaman, Wonder Woman and, the character she’s most proud of, Metamorpho, whom she helped design. But that was over 40 years ago. In 2016, at New York’s Big Apple Con, most of the men who approach the 89-year-old artist ask for sketches of Batman or Superman.

As one of the first women to draw superhero comics, Fradon is a legend. But her presence at the con lacked fanfare. Admirers did not linger near her table, but shouted praise or requests for autographs over the convention’s deafening din as they passed by. Around her, bright, eye-catching displays decorated the tables but hers had only lightly pencilled characters and panels from one of her comic strips. One aisle away, a snaking line of dozens anxiously waited to meet her contemporary, Jim Steranko.

Fradon didn’t seem to mind the disparity in fan reaction on the convention floor. On blogs and in dozens of articles, her position in the industry is well documented. She seemed indifferent to her status as a female legend in the industry, perhaps even perplexed by it. “I mean nothing’s different. It’s just that Hollywood publicity has made this a glamorous thing for people,” Fradon told me when we first met in January, two months before Big Apple Con. It surprised her when she found neighbors that she had invited to her upstate New York home rummaging through her trash can for discarded sketches. This level of stardom has only emerged in her octogenarian decade. Interest in her work began about five years ago, she said, at about the time that the first advocacy group for women in comics, The Friends of Lulu, disbanded. This was also when DC’s New 52 relaunch brought a drastic cut in the number of female creators on its staff.

When Fradon got her start in the 1950s, the industry was fraught with controversy. The comics blogger and writer, Maggie Thompson, recalled that plots were sometimes recycled because publishers didn’t think anyone was actually paying attention to what appeared on the page. But some people were taking notice and not in a helpful way. There were attempts at censorship and book burnings. The Seduction of the Innocent, a work by Dr. Fredric Wertham, decried the medium as a violent corrupter of children, prompting the U.S. Senate to schedule hearings in 1954. The industry took a hit. Companies folded or downsized. The resulting job cuts added to the displacement of women that returning World War II vets had already started. Women who had been working in superhero comics until that point—often as editors or anonymously as colorists—were out of a job. Some, like Dorothy Woolfolk, who worked on Wonder Woman in the ‘40s, would later return, at least for a little while. (Her run on the comic book, “Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane,” an effort to reimagine Lois in a 1970s feminist context,  was cancelled prematurely.)

It was 1951 when Fradon first brought her samples to DC’s offices and bewildered the editor with pages he could not quite believe a woman had drawn.  “Did you do this?” he asked. Her gender made her an anomaly, but she said the man who hired her did not give her a hard time. But since the stigma on comics had already taken hold, she told no one about her career choice. “I’m living in Connecticut, a housewife, a mother, having dinner parties, going to the PTA, then a script comes, and I suddenly have got to draw this violent stuff,” she recalled. “It was a wrench for me.”

Fradon worked from home and took her sketches down to DC’s New York City headquarters by train. She was shy—though the descriptors she prefers are “passive” and “lazy.” A walk into the artist bullpen at DC, she said, felt a lot like walking into the men’s restroom by mistake.

Across town at Marvel, Marie Severin was drawing superheroes as well, but the only two female comic pioneers never met until the 1990s, even though they were repeatedly asked if they were friends.

Why there were not more women artists at the time is hard to discern. Perhaps they were there and simply left out of the history. Books like 2007’s Inside the World of Comic Books make no mention of women at all, except for a top ten list of best female characters. Attempts have been made more recently to track the history of women in comics, like in Pretty in Ink, herstorian Trina Robbins’ history of female cartoonists, published in 2013.

Perhaps it was the emphasis on the woman’s place in the home, so pronounced in the post-war period. Fradon herself took off a few years to raise her daughter. Although the housewife in a flare-skirt is the prevailing image of women of the 1950s, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics offer a very different picture: 34 percent of women were working outside the home, a number that rose steadily over the coming decades.

Perhaps the exclusion was deliberate, or maybe just a more unconscious form of sexism. Trina Robbins, a cartoonist and herstorian, remembers being shut out of the Underground Comix crew, a group which self-published psychedelic comics in the 1960s and ‘70s, because of her gender. She recalled that men she knew would only recommend other men for jobs, even when they knew she was trying to break into the industry. She and other women artists instead published their own female-driven creations, such as Wimmens’ Comix and Tits ‘N Clits.

In the world of superhero comics however, the way Robbins and other women were left out did not evoke the outrage it does today. Heidi MacDonald, a comics journalist and former editor at Disney and DC Comics, recounted one woman’s story on her website. MacDonald wrote that a teenager, whom she identified with a pseudonym, won an art contest that put her in contact with the late and famous editor of DC Comics, Julius Schwartz. At some point, she was alone with him in a limousine and MacDonald said there was groping—a sexual assault. “And when she complained to the ADULTS who ran DC Comics,” MacDonald wrote, “they decided to solve the problem by not giving her any work, the symbolic purdah that so many women were relegated to in those days.”

Or perhaps girls and women had little interest in reading comic books. The fan mail in the back pages of superhero comic books, at least until the 1980s, are said to rarely bear female signatures. Before Wendy Pini gained standing as the creator of the independent comic Elfquest, she had a letter published in the back of Silver Surfer No. 5, including her home address in the style of the day. Seeing a girl’s name prompted dozens of male fans to inundate her by mail with requests to meet. Paul Levitz, DC’s former president, told me she actually met her husband that way.

In the 2014 documentary She Makes Comics, Levitz recalled how small those early conventions—a couple of hundred people compared to more than a hundred thousand in more recent years. Among early attendees, he said the women were either mothers of boys too young to go on their own or girlfriends of older boys who just tagged along.

Trina Robbins speaks on a Women in Comics Panel at San Diego Comic Con, 1982. That year, the panel was populated with women from the independent comic scene, though superhero artist Jan Duursema sits to the left. (Alan Light/Wikimedia Commons)

Trina Robbins speaks on a women in comics panel at the 1982 San Diego Comic Con, around the time that women began infiltrating the “boys club.” To her left is the superhero artist Jan Duursema (Alan Light/Wikimedia Commons)

Robbins said at those early cons, even trying to populate a panel on women in comics was a struggle. “Mainstream comics really had very little in the way of women,” she said over the phone from her San Francisco apartment. “And so I was put on some really weird women in comics panels where, really, the other woman was somebody’s wife or something.” The first one ever held, by Robbins’ account, was at an Underground Comix convention in 1973.

Denis Kitchen, a prominent figure in the Underground Comix movement at the time, explained that the perceived lack of female readers led to a lack of female directed content in the superhero genre. He himself knew very few women who read superhero comics. “That was understandable,” he wrote over email, “since newsstand comics were the product of virtually 100 percent male artists, writers, editors, and publishers whose market was presumed (with few exceptions) to be young males.” Thompson, a former columnist for the now-defunct Comics Buyers Guide, noted how the specialty comics shops that began to open quickly became male bastions, unaccepting of women. “So then as a publisher, you say, ‘Who am I selling to?’” she said. “‘Okay, we’re selling to 14-year-old boys. What do the 14-year-old boys want? They want superheroes and they want pin-ups.’ Wouldn’t you be a fool to say, ‘I refuse to do that. I should only do Pride and Prejudice adapted for modern readers?’”

MacDonald wrote that she was among only a “handful” of women working in comics when she first started writing in fanzines in the 80s. “And when I say handful,” she said. “I mean . . . a handful.” Jason Shayer, who blogs about Marvel comics from the 1980s, told me that he knew the names of two women who were drawing for the company during that decade. However, he said, there were more women in those days who filled writing and editing roles at the company. Attempts to name every woman who ever worked in comics appear on sites such as Women in Comics Wikia or the forums of Comic Vine but these, too, are incomplete. For example, as recently as April 2016, neither included an entry on the artist Duursema of Star Wars fame. 

Inspiration for the “handful” grew out of their own fandom—meaning that girls were reading comics after all. Duursema loved Batman and Superman. Louise Simonson, a popular writer and editor, enjoyed the work of Wally Wood who drew Daredevil for Marvel. Judy Hunt, who pencilled comics for the Big Two and the now-defunct Comico, remembers reading comics in a tent with her girlfriends as a child. MacDonald grew up devouring them and attended conventions from a young age. “I wasn’t afraid,” she said of the events notoriously filled with awkward, sometimes predatory men. The first woman to be featured in Comics Interview Magazine was not an artist but a female fan named June Kostar, who the interviewer, Jim Salicrup, found on a sidewalk, reading an issue of the Fantastic Four. “People have an image of girls only reading Archie or Romance comics,” Salicrup wrote in the magazine’s June 1983 issue.

None of the female artists and editors I interviewed who made their careers in the 1980s said they ever felt ostracized once they got in the door, but that did not mean gender still was a factor in their careers. As an editor, Simonson told me that she had to be harder on the women who who worked for her because they had more to prove. Duursema still finds it amusing that the combination of her drawing style and the gender ambiguity of her first name, Jan, had early fans convinced she was a man. Hunt was not driven from the field by sexism, but by her need to find more stable income once her husband left her with a disabled son. He too was a comics writer.

Pencils of a Star Wars comic, posted to Twitter by artist Jan Duursema, May 4, 2016

Pencils of a Star Wars comic, posted to Twitter by artist Jan Duursema, May 4, 2016

None of them said the superhero characters they were obliged to write or draw made them uncomfortable. Hunt was somewhat of an exception. As a children’s book artist and the mother of a young child, she deplored violence and in fact, did not remain in the field for very long.

As to how women were depicted in the comics in the 1980s, no consensus emerged. Fans like Kostar saw them as “pornography” and lacking in character. “It’s as if all these artists with diverse styles leave a blank space whenever a woman needs to be drawn – then this little ninety-year-old man hobbles from studio to studio, filling in his style of women. That’s how much alike they look,” she told Salicrup.

By the 1990s, that view had not changed. Female characters in superhero comics had unrealistic proportions or were “fridged”—a term coined by Gail Simone in 1999 after the Green Lantern’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, was left dead in a refrigerator for him to find. It refers to women’s deaths, rapes, or maiming for no other purpose than to advance a male character’s storyline. Robbins, the herstorian, called the ’90s the “bad girl” period for the “women characters with breasts bigger than their heads and really long legs wearing tiny outfits and super high-heeled shoes.”

Sketch of Power Girl by Ramona Fradon at Big Apple Con, March 5, 2016

At Big Apple Con, I bought a sketch of DC’s Power Girl from Fradon, who had drawn the character in her original 1976 depiction: a bombshell blonde with breasts the size of her head and a “boob window” in her costume to give them full emphasis. A redesign in 2011 eliminated the window but it soon came back. Our conversation reminded Fradon of the time a fan at a convention asked her to draw her rendition of the character. “He had bunch of sketches from other artists, and at first [her breasts] looked normal, but as you flipped through they got bigger and bigger. So I drew her holding up a newspaper.” Fradon laughed at the drawing I chose from those she had on display. In it, Power Girl is looking down in absolute horror at the size to which her chest has grown.

Conditions in the industry and characters like Power Girl led MacDonald to found the Friends of Lulu in 1993 to advocate for more women in comics, for more women readers of comics, and for better treatment of women at comic shops or conventions. Several dozen women attended that first meeting.

By 2010, the organization folded, a passing that MacDonald, for one, did not lament. “The world that [Friends of Lulu] was created to confront doesn’t exist any more,” she wrote on her site. “Women are back in comics as creators, readers, retailers . . . you name it. Even characters now and then.” Cryptically, however, she added, a caveat:  “I don’t believe that anything is ever safe and secure.”

In the years since, MacDonald and others have written story after story after story after story after story about sexual harassment in the industry, or how few women still seem to be working in superhero comics.

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Photographers at WonderCon in Los Angeles photograph as woman dressed as the comic book character Harley Quinn, March 25, 2016

Photographers at WonderCon in Los Angeles photograph as woman dressed as the comic book character Harley Quinn, March 25, 2016

Comic cons are remarkable beasts. They’re filled with so many video games, films, television, and trading cards that they make the word comic in the title a near misnomer. Attendees enter into a world full of endless merchandise and rare artwork. Cosplayers dress in intricate costumes of their favorite characters and sometimes act like them too, attracting gaggles of photographers. Crowds in the hundreds to hundreds of thousands mix and mingle, all united by similar interests. Friends are made easily while waiting in line for autographs or events.

The events give fans unparalleled access to their favorite creators and celebrities for sketches, selfies, and chats. They can last a day or the weekend or can even be a four-day  extravaganza. Comic cons can be exhilarating, enlightening, expensive, fun, and thoroughly exhausting.

There is also a small subset of cons that cater specifically to women’s interests, like the second annual Women in Comics Convention—nicknames WinC Con (as in “wink”)—I attended on March 12. Others with a women’s theme are held annually, such as Geek Girl Con in Seattle and Comique Con in Detroit. WinC Con attracted almost a thousand attendees to the basement of the Bronx Library Center. Unlike other cons, there were no vague “women in comics” panels, but instead, panels that highlighted female achievements or issues of diversity. Except for a few male allies, its panelists and Artist Alley—a cramped array of two dozen tables—were all female. An extremely unique feat.

Regine Sawyer, an independent comic writer, organized the convention with help from the Women in Comics NYC Collective International, a group she founded. Its membership roster numbers into the hundreds and includes a number of women with big reputations in the field. Among them are Alitha Martinez of Big Two fame and Alice Meichi Li, whose covers have been published by Dark Horse and Image Comics, among others. At the event, comic lovers and casual fans mixed in the mostly female crowd. They took workshops on improving their craft or listened to panelists, like Barbara Brandon-Croft, the first black woman to have a nationally syndicated newspaper strip. I asked a little girl dressed as Wonder Woman if she wants to be a comic book writer. “Duh,” she shot back with a flip of her hair.

Attendees at WonderCon in Los Angeles browse prints of artist Neal Adams' work, March 27, 2016.

Attendees at WonderCon in Los Angeles browse prints of artist Neal Adams’ work, March 27, 2016.

Conventions that are not female-friendly are as prevalent as those that are. There’s the New Jersey Comics Expo which featured only four women among the 74 creators in its Artist Alley, a lapse organizers attributed to scheduling snafus. While I was there, a fellow journalist remarked that the paucity of women creators made the convention “feel like the 1980s.” At the famed French festival held in Angouleme, France, women in all comics genres were dismissed as inconsequential. And there was a mystifying choice of panelists for one of many women in comics panels at the Denver Comic Con. Every one of them was a man. Women reacted by putting together their own impromptu panel and used the opportunity to discuss why it was critical to the success of women artists for panels to include them, not only on panels of women’s interest but in a more general way, too. Robbins, who took part, told me she had to chastise women for feeling “pigeonholed” by their gender.

And yet Maggie Thompson told me she thinks the idea of safe spaces for women is crap. “I went through the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s and whatever. It was never safe,” she said. “If we’re supposed to be so damn tough, how come I need a safe place? The guys don’t get a safe place.” She noted that there will always be bad language and bad social skills and trolls, but the trick is to ignore them. She agrees with those who find “women in comics” or women’s anthologies or panels a form of “ghettoizing.” In Los Angeles, the WonderCon in March had no all-female panel—an anomaly among the big conventions. But one artist at the event told me she had been emailed about the possibility of putting one together. Irritated, she ignored it.

“Until our society doesn’t marginalize women, we need to keep putting women at the forefront.”

But Alice Meichi Li of the Women in Comics Collective sees these spaces as critical, even now. “Until our society doesn’t marginalize women, we need to keep putting women at the forefront,” she said. Other groups in the fan sphere clearly support this notion. There’s the Valkyries, for women who work in comic book shops; Geek Girl Brunch, where female fans gather in chapters across the world; and Comic Book Women, a new advocacy group that works to see a greater variety of female professionals on panels. To Li, groups like these help women find support from other women as they create their own opportunities. At the convention in the Bronx, for instance, creators could sell and promote their work and meet others who are facing similar difficulties.  

Unfortunately for the members of the Collective, their biggest problem is harassment and sexism, as inevitable for artists and fans as it is for women in general. As MacDonald noted, sexism is a given in most industries but not so many have the same “toxic boys club spiraling through their DNA” that has been part of the comics community since its start. At WinC,  Li said organizers were forced to bar a man who had harassed several members of her collective. “He’s not a professional, but he hangs around with professionals,” she said. “He’s been known for stalking women or leaving inappropriate comments on their social media or even acquiring the home phone number of a female professional and she didn’t give him the number. So this happens all the time.”

An online survey of fans and professionals conducted last year found that 59 percent of the fans and professionals interviewed identified harassment at comic cons as a problem that  25 percent had experienced personally. Its creator, Janelle Asselin, an independent comic publisher and former DC editor, did not respond to interview requests but it was she who faced rape threats after she criticized a Teen Titans cover.

At two conventions I attended while reporting this piece, I met an art dealer who introduced himself by pretending we had met before. He interrupted me while I interviewed artists, followed me, would address me as “beautiful,” commented that I’m more attractive in person than in photos online and offered to take photos of me. Another man that I ran into at the same two conventions hinted repeatedly at how hard it was for  him to find a girlfriend who likes comic books and asked if I could help. When I mentioned these encounters to a female writer and cartoonist, she said that something similar happened to her at one of the same events. When I mentioned the incidents to an older male collector, he called me “ageist” for not welcoming their advances.

A sketch of Spiderman and Black Cat for Emerald City Comic Con (image via Instagram)

A sketch of Spiderman and Black Cat for Emerald City Comic Con (image via Doyle’s Instagram)

Women often face negative reactions for talking about these scenarios. Li said her male friends encourage her to keep quiet to avoid drama when she encounters harassment, and in comics, it seems to be no different. “I think the industry is really small when it comes down to it.  . . . You don’t know who you’re going to offend,” Li said. “They might have friends in high places. You risk putting yourself on a blacklist if you speak out. You risk your career.” Rather than discuss things publicly, Li said she knows of clandestine forums where female creators warn each other of predatory professionals. Or there’s the anonymous Tumblr of Shit People Say to Women in Comics, where women confide that they have been told to sound cheerier on the phone and that they have had their abilities questioned because they have children.

More recently, the online world of comics exploded when DC fired Shelly Bond, the longtime editor of Vertigo, its imprint that published Fables. Her firing led to revelations that DC editor Eddie Berganza has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment, yet has always had a job at the company. Asselin tweeted her disgust over the unfairness. “It’s late and I’m out of fucks,” she said, “so yes, the fact that DC can find reason to fire Shelly Bond and reason to keep Berganza employed is trash.” She disclosed that she was among the many women who reported Berganza for sexual harassment in 2010 to no avail. He was promoted. To date, DC Comics has not commented on the allegations against the editor (though co-publisher Dan DiDio has deleted his Twitter).

Other women also have come forward to call out bad behavior in the industry. The writer Gail Simone began her career by pointing out sexism with her “women in refrigerators” concept back in the 1990s. Now, Simone has a significant social media following which she uses to address these issues. In 2012, she sparred with a few male writers after the relaunch of DC New 52 initially cut its female creative staff to 1 percent. “What’s your thinking here, Gail?” the men asked her on Twitter. “Writers should be hired based on sex?” or “Is there a sensibility you feel a female creator brings that’s missing?” Nilah Magruder, creator of the webcomic MFK, which won the MacDuffie diversity award, has a smaller social media following than Simone, but also speaks out regularly. ”There are certain things that I just can’t be quiet about and continue to respect myself,” Magruder told me at WonderCon.

Nilah Magruder at WonderCon in Los Angeles, March 26, 2016

Nilah Magruder at WonderCon in Los Angeles, March 26, 2016

Other women in the field use their work to confront sexism and other forms of discrimination, like creative team of Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage on DC Comics Bombshells, Amanda Conner (with her husband Jimmy Palmiotti) in making Harley Quinn more than just the Joker’s girlfriend or Amy Chu’s Poison Ivy miniseries. Chu, who created Alpha Girl Comics to publish more stories by women, made the character of Poison Ivy/Pamela Isley as strong and intelligent as well as sexy. And spoiler alert: when the titular character gets harassed by men, she punishes offenders quite severely.

But not all characters get as respectful a treatment as Chu’s Poison Ivy. Li noted that she has been deliberately asked to shorten the skirts or amplify the bustlines of characters she designs for a few clients with male audiences. The “brokeback pose”— which MacDonald’s site The Beat describes as the “show your ass AND your tits” pose—is still in use.

For a while, The Beat ran a Tumblr of the most egregious examples. Most remember the recent Marvel Comics controversy over Spider Woman’s overly emphasized derriere, and more recently, Buzzfeed sought to compare comic book poses to real women. First they had women try the poses themselves like the character and then the publication Photoshopped them into the character’s mirror image. That meant radically reducing the waistline, aggrandizing the breast and elongating the legs.  Seeing themselves in revision, the women responded with comments such as, “My stomach looks like it has room for exactly two peas in it;” and, “This shit is impossible if you have bones, muscles and organs;” and “It feels like a way to take away power. Like, ‘Oh yea, she’s strong and powerful, but she’s definitely fuckable too, don’t worry.’”

The lack of diversity in characters also comes up as a sticking point. For characters, Li said, “If you’re anything but a straight white male, it’s hard to find yourself.” It’s hard to argue with her. The most common reaction to the dearth of black female characters is, “What about Storm?” Asian characters are forced into stereotypical roles—always playing the ninjaor whitewashed in cinematic adaptations. As Magruder, of the webcomic MFK, pointed out: “If you can list the number of people, that’s the problem.”

Magruder’s main character, Abbie, is a young black superpowered psychic. She would like to see her work go mainstream eventually, but hasn’t put in any effort yet. “Right now I’m just waiting to see both Marvel and DC, I don’t know, wise up to the fact that there are more stories they could be telling and there’s more talent out there that they could be hiring,” Magruder said. As Simone pointed out to her male critics, “there are more than two female creators who are qualified and talented.”

In the industry, the large number of freelancers, variant covers and guests artists causes the size of creative staffs at all comic companies to vary each month, but that does not translate into more opportunities for women. For example, Tim Hanley, of the Gendercrunching blog, calculated that from 1996 to 2011, the number of female staff members at DC Comics had remained essentially stagnant at about 10 percent. By contrast, women dominate the graphic novel genre and have been hired in greater numbers by smaller publishers, like Boom!

“What are you trying to do, get women to 50%? Will that be adequate? Or would you like 56%, or maybe 60%?”

To its credit, DC was also praised back in October by Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos for its own diversity in hiring. However it is difficult to tell how DC will fare once its “Rebirth” initiative starts. The plan is to relaunch established characters and cut back the number of books DC releases each month. As the feminist blog The Mary Sue noted: both the titles and creators planned for Rebirth are rather “dude heavy.” So far, only seven women have been named as writers and artists on the 32 books, including three three artists in guest positions and four writers who share three books among them, none of which star male characters. Popular creators Annie Wu (Black Canary), Ming Doyle (Constantine: The Hellblazer), and Babs Tarr (Batgirl) are all losing their books in the reorganization. But as the commenters on Gendercrunching have chided, “What are you trying to do, get women to 50%? Will that be adequate? Or would you like 56%, or maybe 60%?”

Marvel, DC’s East Coast rival, is on similar footing in terms of the number of women it employs on its creative staffs. And as Hanley pointed out to me via email, the two publishers only have themselves to blame: You get to work for both publishers by invitation only; there’s no way to submit your work to them. Unsolicited pitches just get thrown out. So at the editorial level, DC and Marvel have complete control over who is pitching for their books, and a lack of women making their comics traces directly back to them not inviting women to be in the mix.”

Artist Nicola Scott will be drawing the even numbered issues of Wonder Woman for DC's "Rebirth." (image via Instagram)

Artist Nicola Scott will be drawing the even numbered issues of Wonder Woman for DC’s “Rebirth.” (image via Scott’s Instagram)

For Li, the combination of disrespect for female characters and lack of female staff members creates a working atmosphere within the companies that is hostile to women. “I have friends who have worked at DC comics, women friends and editors … but after a while they feel so oppressed by the culture of sexism that they just want to leave of their own volition,” Li said. “People might try to say that the industry wants women, but if it’s oppressive enough to make women want to leave, then that’s not wanting women.” Her point is especially relevant in light of the Berganza allegations. There is talk that an unspoken rule at the company was to avoid hiring women to work on Superman to keep Berganza at bay.

Like sexual harassment, the instances of inequality between sexes extend far beyond comic book industry. A survey from NBC and Survey Monkey sampled over 12,000 people and found that 50 percent of women have feel they have experienced discrimination based on their gender. However, comics has its share. Every woman I interviewed has a story about feeling unaccepted in a comic shop or uncomfortable at a convention. Even Conner, one of the most successful women in comics today, has hers.

On that renegade women in comics panel at the Denver convention, Conner said the only time she’s ever felt pushback because of her gender was in a comic book store. The guys inside the moldy, box-filled shop asked what she was doing in there.

“I’m like, ‘Well, I’m trying to break into drawing comics.’ They just started laughing,” Conner recalled.  “I walked out of there thinking, you know what, I’m gonna show them.”

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On March 16, 2016, Marvel Comics expanded its audience of “True Believers,” as the company sometimes call them, by one more person — President Barack Obama. At a reception for Women’s History Month, Sana Amanat, Marvel’s director of content and character development, gave the opening remarks and introduced the president, presenting with a comic that featured him as Spider Man’s sidekick. But she also told him and the enthusiastic audience, their smartphones raised in the air, the story of one of Marvel’s newest female superheroes: Ms. Marvel. The character also known as Kamala Khan is the first Muslim American superhero and was Amanat’s creation, along with writer G. Willow Wilson and artist  Adrian Alphona.

“Her journey, her challenge was to seek and create her own identity on her own terms, owning her differences as strengths,” Amanat said of the character from Jersey City. “Her story has challenged misperceptions about minorities, about women, about anyone who has been marginalized for their differences. And it has connected with fans the world over.” The president certainly seemed to be a fan of both the character and its creator. “Ms. Marvel may be your comic book creation, but for a lot of young boys and girls, Sana’s a real life superhero,” Obama said.

Vox’s Abad-Santos agrees with the president. In his November 2015 profile of Amanat, he wrote that the comic book maven “has made it her mission to redefine what is possible for women and people of color in an industry dominated by white men.” Amanat showed her pride for women infiltrating the comics’ “boys club” on the 2015 Women of Marvel Panel at New York Comic Con. She sat alongside 10 other women from various parts of the Marvel universe. “I still hear people saying women aren’t making comics and that the industry isn’t diverse enough,” she said. “I say look up here.”

Now with 17 books starring women, Marvel’s titles finally seem to be mirroring the less-acknowledged half of its readership (and its West Coast rival DC Comics was on a similar path, until Rebirth was announced). Fans are showing their appreciation. As Abad-Santos notes, Ms. Marvel’s first issue went into its seventh printing, an extreme rarity. And in the letters pages of other comics, praise from fans has poured in for this new diversity in content.

Take the clever and fun Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (my current favorite title), drawn by Erica Henderson and written by Ryan North. The series pulls a forgotten character from a 1992 story, giving her new life as a college student fighting crime. Many of the letters praise Henderson for her depiction of the character—more booty and less boob, realistic curves, and, finally, not the standard-issue-comic-girl face. Other female fans praise Doreen Green, the title character’s alternate identity, for not “fighting crime in her underwear” or for having “the body type a lot of us have.” Henderson is candid in her answers, writing that she drew a more muscular character because she has “a hard time believing that a 90-pound woman can take down a 200-pound steroidal dude who has equal fighting ability.” The clothes are what she imagined the character would choose for herself.

More remarkably, female superheroes have dominated several new television series. Marvel’s Jessica Jones premiered on Netflix to immense success in 2015 (though we are still waiting on more female-fronted films). Jones was a character who exemplified feminism well before the industry began to inch toward embracing it. Her series, Alias, written by fan-favorite Brian Michael Bendis, ran from 2001 to 2004, when comics were still growing out of the over-sexed ‘90s. She is a potty-mouthed hot head who controls her own fate and her sexuality.

Beyond Marvel and DC, other comics have begun infiltrating the superhero genre with their own brands of positivity. Valiant Comics has created Faith, the first plus-sized superhero, who debuted to solid fanfare in a limited series and was recently slated to get her own full run.

And if the acknowledgement of the president and the fans isn’t enough, perhaps awards are a bit more concrete. The Eisners are the Oscar’s of comic books—and this year the nominations included a record number of women.

Herstorian Trina Robbins called the new mainstream comics, like Ms. Marvel or The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, “girl-friendly.” Their content, along with graphic novels and webcomics, make her think women no longer need special encouragement to join the industry. It’s a virtuous circle: the increasing amount of female-minded content leads to more women getting interested in comics, which  leads to more women wanting to make comics, and so on. Market research from 2014 found that nearly 50 percent of comics fans were female.

It is the direct opposite of the situation described by Denis Kitchen in the 1970s. When Amanat asked at the Women of Marvel panel who among them wanted to become a comic book artist or writer, nearly half the members of the audience raised their hands. In general, attendance by women at cons is also growing. At the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, for example, women typically outnumber men, and at larger conventions, the number of women given space in the Artist Alleys has grown. Hanley also told me that the number of women working at the Big Two has begun to trend upwards, albeit slowly.

Artist Annie Wu sketches as she talks to fans during on a panel highlighting her work, March 26, 2016

Artist Annie Wu sketches as she talks to fans during on a panel highlighting her work, March 26, 2016

There were other signs of change at this year’s conventions. New York Comic Con continued their “Cosplay Is Not Consent” anti-harassment policy. WonderCon had no women’s panels and instead had spotlights on creators like Annie Wu and Ming Doyle. Refreshingly, neither was asked about her gender. Wu talked mostly about movies or Kanye West’s new album and Doyle about her path to success.

Heidi MacDonald made an illustrative analogy about changes when we spoke over lunch back in January. “You know the show the Big Bang Theory?” she asked. Who doesn’t? The show chronicling a group of socially awkward and geeky dudes seems to know no bounds in popularity. Comic shops on the show are depicted as male spaces, with women being gawked at for entering comic shops as if they didn’t belong (Ironically, Amanda Conner’s pinup art was commissioned for the show as part of a gag based on this concept). “Until a few years ago, that’s how things were,” MacDonald explained. It’s something many female fans have experienced. Alice Cloos, one of the world’s biggest Wonder Woman collectors, told me that dealers did not take her seriously when she first started her hobby, even going so far as to quiz her to test her knowledge. I was 12 when I began reading comics and instinctively understood that I needed to keep it a secret. I watched animes alone in my room, read pirated manga and made friends on online message boards to cloak my newfound obsession. I knew if I told anyone at school about it, I’d surely be exiled to the lunch table with the kid who only read books about dragons. (Another secret: I borrowed many of his dragon books.)

This drawing by Amanda Conner appeared in an episode of the Big Bang theory as part of a gag on comic shops being unwelcoming to women (image via Instagram)

This drawing by Amanda Conner appeared in an episode of the Big Bang theory as part of a gag on comic shops being unwelcoming to women (image via Conner’s Instagram)

The atmosphere is different now—you can tell from the screenshots and posts about comics which shamelessly litter my Instagram feed. MacDonald attributes this nerdy coming out party to the internet. It allows for more open discussion of the issues plaguing comicslike far too many boob windows or issues of representationvia Twitter hashtags or forums. More importantly, it allows for women to create their own opportunities for publication. They can start a webcomic with no overhead costs, they can crowdfund their own publications, and have their work found more easilythat’s how Babs Tarr earned her run on Batgirl.

Though the internet is certainly opening doors for women in comics, Robbins warned that it doesn’t mean other ones should stay shutin terms of industry inclusion or fandom. “That’s nice, you know, ‘let’s open it up to girls’ and ‘they can get it on the internet.’ But they should be able to go into a store and get it,” she said at Denver Comic Con last year. That can’t happen until more women are hired at the Big Two of Marvel and DC.

At New York Comic Con in October, I met Julie Kerwin, the creator of I Am Elemental, an action figure company which produces body-positive figurines, mostly for girls. Kerwin asked every person who stopped at her booth to sign the UN’s He for She pledge for gender equality. “Every person, male or female, did,” she told me. I asked her whether she thought this meant the comic book community was finally moving past the classic male-directed content in its books. And she responded, “It takes a long time to turn a large ship.”

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