As is customary, I am posting the text of my ICFA presentation here, so I can read it off my phone while running my presentation from my laptop.
This paper is going to compare and evaluate Marvel and DC’s efforts to market superhero comics to female readers through references to Internet culture. And this is not part of a larger project yet, I have too many other things to finish before I can get around to writing about this, but it’s sort of a summary of my recent thinking on issues of gender in superhero comics. Out of necessity this is going to be a brief summary of a complicated knot of issues, and the controversies discussed in this paper are still ongoing as I’m reading it, so it does not even claim to be a definitive summary of the issues. Also, a possible alternative title would have been Vocal Minorities, and I don’t have time to explain that reference, but you can look it up.
So over just the last couple years the comic book marketplace has shifted seismically. Comics used to be seen as this medium for kids and maladjusted adults, except that actual kids no longer read comics, so the comics audience was basically people like me who had been reading comics forever. That is no longer the case. Since sometime around 2012, comics for kids have gone from being completely nonexistent to being a huge segment of the industry. Image Comics, which used to publish the worst kind of superhero material, now sees women as its largest target demographic. And the graphic novel is a genre that attracts wide and diverse audiences, as suggested by Roz Chast’s recent National Book Award for a book about dealing with elderly parents. The one genre of comics that continues to lag behind the rest of the industry in terms of its appeal to female fans is superhero comics, traditionally the dominant genre and still known as mainstream comics. At the comic book store, superheroes are still the dominant genre, and there’s still this stereotype that comic book stores are man caves, as depicted in the scene from The Big Bang Theory where some girls walk into a comic book store and all the men turn around and stare at them. SLIDE And this is primarily the fault of Marvel and DC, which have spent the past thirty to forty years catering almost exclusively to male readers, and more recently to adult male readers in particular.
And yet female superhero fandom is a thing that exists. It’s largely a phenomenon specific to female-dominated Internet social spaces like Tumblr and formerly LiveJournal. For example, the Internet community Scans_Daily was founded in 2003 and still exists today. SLIDE As the name indicates, Scans_Daily primarily shares scans of pages from superhero comics, and it has a mostly female user base. And there is a large superhero presence on Tumblr, as indicated by sites like DC Women Kicking Ass. SLIDE So evidence suggests that there are women who read Marvel and DC comics and who enjoy Marvel and DC’s characters, despite these companies’ lack of support or even active discouragement of female fans.
Now what’s happened over the past couple years is that Marvel and subsequently DC have started to notice this, and have started to publish comics specifically designed to appeal to Internet female fandom. Titles marketed toward female readers have been a major part of Marvel’s recent output. Examples of this trend include Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Ms Marvel, and more recently G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. SLIDE Now why exactly this trend began is not clear to me and is somewhat beyond the scope of this paper, but a friend suggested that it may have begun with Loki’s unexpected popularity in the first Thor movie, and I think that’s reasonable. Marvel has been heavily pushing the character of Loki lately – a character who, incidentally, has always been a transgressor of standard gender roles – and last year’s Loki, Agent of Asgard #1 included images of Loki that were explicitly designed to titillate female readers. SLIDE This sort of beefcake imagery was previously unheard of in American commercial comics. And similarly, Kieron Gillen’s Young Avengers, which was published from 2013 to 2014, features a wide variety of attractive male characters drawn in a beefcake style, and the first issue begins with Kate Bishop, the female Hawkeye, having a one-night stand with a quote, beautiful alien boy, which shows a level of female sexual agency which is rare in American superhero comics. SLIDE
So in a July 2013 Onion AV Club article, Oliver Sava described Young Avengers as “Tumblr bait.” He observed: “Search for “Young Avengers” on Tumblr and you’ll find a massive number of posts dedicated to Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Marvel Now! series. … Every new issue of Young Avengers provides plenty of fresh fanbait ready to be shared across social media platforms. … After half a year of issues, the creative team has seen enough Tumblr posts and tweets to know what fans want to see, and the book has become part superhero story, part confluence of memes.” End quote. So this comic was specifically designed to appeal to posters on Tumblr, which tends to be a female-dominated social media space. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie and their editors were aware of sites like Scans_Daily, and they wanted to appeal to that clientele.
Now another way this series tries to cultivate a female Internet-savvy audience is through its active incorporation of visual tropes derived from the Internet. And this is where this topic intersects with my current research into connections between comics and digital culture. As Oliver Sava also points out, every issue of Young Avengers, starting with issue 2, begins with a recap page that’s designed to look like a Tumblr feed. SLIDE
Now just for some historical context, this was not the first time Marvel incorporated Internet visual culture into their comics. The earliest example of this that I personally remember was in Prince of Power #3 from 2010. In this issue, Thor and Amadeus Cho are visiting the Egyptian underworld when they encounter Sekhmet, the Egyptian goddess of destruction, who manifests as a ferocious lioness. But Amadeus overcomes her by transforming her into Hathor, the goddess of love, who manifests as a lolcat. And she speaks in lolspeak and the Impact typeface which is associated with lolcat memes is used for her speech balloons. So for me, reading this, it was a big deal because this was the first time I remember Marvel or DC referencing Internet meme culture. SLIDE Earlier references to the Internet were cringe-inducing, like the scene in Civil War: Frontline where Captain America is criticized for not watching NASCAR or having a Myspace page. SLIDE Marvel and DC comics have historically been produced by and for people who have been involved with comics for their entire lives and who are completely out of touch with But the lolcat scene indicated to me that the writers, Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak, had been paying attention to contemporary internet culture, that they not only knew what lolcats were but were even capable of using the lolcat meme in a creative and appropriate way.
So Young Avengers does the same thing, but on an even greater scale. As just mentioned, issue 2 begins with a recap page which is designed to look like a Tumblr feed. SLIDE Just like with actual Tumblr, there are icons on the left representing the people who are supposedly sharing each of these stories, and each of these icons represents an existing Marvel character, including J Jonah Jameson and Dr. Doom. And each of the “posts” comes with hashtags. Every other issue of the series had a similar recap page, except issue 6 which was a standalone story. And this emphasis on Internet culture also appears in other recent Marvel titles. For example, the new Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, writes Internet fan fiction about superheroes. When she meets Wolverine, she tells him that “my Wolverine-and-Storm-in-space fanfic was the third most upvoted story on Freaking Awesome last month!” SLIDE And Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is also worth discussing in this context but I’m going to save that for my Wiscon paper.
So Marvel has been actively attempting to attract female readers, and a legitimate question here is whether they’re doing this with serious intent or whether it’s just a cynical move to appeal to a particular target demographic. I think it’s probably a little of both. However, it seems to have worked. Titles like Ms Marvel and Hawkeye have been among Marvel’s top sellers, especially in digital form, which makes sense given that when buying comics digitally you can avoid the frequently sexist and unwelcoming atmosphere of the comic book store. Conversely, since the debut of the New 52 in 2012, an event in which DC relaunched their entire line, DC seems to have been actively trying to turn away female readers. The New 52 was billed as an attempt to attract new readers but whether it was even a serious attempt in the first place is doubtful. A survey in early 2012 revealed that DC’s readership was something like 93% male, which was likely due to the company’s lack of female creators and its overly sexualized portrayals of female characters. SLIDE
So sometime in 2014, DC’s executives gradually realized that the company was shooting itself in the foot by ignoring female readers, and they’ve tried to address this by releasing a number of new titles specifically targeted toward women, including Gotham Academy and Harley Quinn. SLIDE The flagship title of this initiative is Batgirl by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, which is not strictly speaking a new series, but an existing series with a new creative team. And Batgirl is interesting in this context because it incorporates digital culture into its plot, to a greater extent than in any previous mainstream comic I can think of. The plot of the first issue by the new creative team revolves around a villain called Riot Black who has a computer brain and who steals Batgirl’s laptop and downloads its data into his mind so he can blackmail her. And Batgirl defeats him by tricking him into looking at a QR code which contains a virus that contaminates his mind. In her secret identity, Batgirl is an urban geographer whose research focuses on an algorithm for social mapping, which I’m not clear what that is, but essentially Batgirl is a super-hacker. She fights crime not only through her physical abilities but also through her command of computer technology. And the visual style of the comic reflects that. SLIDE As media studies scholar Will Brooker points out in an interview on multiversitycomics.com, one of the key visual devices in Batgirl is the incorporation of text messages, e-mails and social media feeds into the space of the panel. “Sometimes text messaging replaces a speech balloon, sometimes a caption, sometimes a whole frame … It also conveys the idea that our lives are made up of these various windows and panels. As we look from the world to our phone, we are in a sense living within this framework, like living in a comic book almost in its combination of words and images.” Brooker comments on how this is a weird blending of analog and digital, and the ultimate example of this is that the QR code in issue 35 is actually a real working QR code that leads to a page on DC comics’s site. SLIDE So Batgirl is an interesting example of a phenomenon I’ve been discussing in other work, which is the increasing cross-contamination or mutual influence of comics and digital media. An overarching theme of my current book project is that comics are currently doing a better job than print literature of hybridizing print and digital media, and Batgirl is sort of an example of that.
Now as an example of a comic that appeals to female readers through the use of references to Internet culture, Batgirl is, in my opinion, less successful than Young Avengers. One reason is because Batgirl’s incorporation of Internet culture sometimes seems overly forced; it’s like Fletcher and Stewart don’t really understand what it’s like to be a young Internet-savvy urban female intellectual, they’re just giving us their perception of what it might be like to be such a person. In my review of Batgirl #38 on my blog, I wrote “I’m starting to feel like Cameron and Brenden don’t really believe in the premise of this series. Somehow it feels like they’re just going through the motions of writing about a social-media- and tech-savvy female superhero, and their hearts aren’t really in it.” The other problem is that both the writers and the editors have been guilty of major miscalculations that reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of their target audience. Batgirl #37 features a villain who impersonates Batgirl in order to ruin her reputation. The issue ends with the revelation that the Batgirl impersonator is actually a man. This scene was widely viewed as transphobic. Jessica Lachenal (LASHENEL) at The Mary Sue.com wrote that “this presentation of the character paints an awful picture of drag queens, trans women, and non-binary people alike. It props up the trope of the “crazy, unstable drag queen / trans woman.” SLIDE And Stewart, Tarr and Fletcher were forced to issue a public apology. But this controversy pales in comparison to what happened with Rafael Albuquerque’s variant cover for Batgirl #41. SLIDE I’m not going to show that cover, you can easily look it up yourself if you want, but the cover is a reference to Batman: The Killing Joke, in which Batgirl is shot and paralyzed and sexually assaulted by the Joker, and the cover depicts Batgirl as a passive and helpless victim. And this cover was widely criticized for being totally inappropriate given the series’s emphasis on female empowerment, so DC’s decision to publish this cover was a major miscalculation, and after a protest campaign on Twitter, DC withdrew the cover at the request of the artist who drew it. And then a bunch of idiots got angry that DC withdrew the cover due to pressure from feminists, and hey started a counter-protest campaign aimed at getting DC to reinstate the cover, and Adam Baldwin supported this campaign, and it’s turned into a huge mess which is still currently ongoing as I write this. So Batgirl is not only about social media but has become a social media controversy itself. And again, this story is currently developing and to discuss it in depth would require another paper.
If there is anything we can conclude from all this, it is, first, girls and women love superheroes and want to read superhero comics despite the genre’s legacy of misogyny, and second, one way that comic book companies can capture this audience is by acknowledging the existence of Internet female fandom and showing an understanding of this constituency. At the same time, efforts to increase the inclusivity of superhero comics tend to provoke negative reactions among the straight white men who have historically dominated superhero fandom. But I think in general the superhero comics genre has made significant progress in the years since Green Lantern’s girlfriend was stuffed into a refrigerator, and female Internet fandom is a major reason why.