Thursday, January 13, 2005

The boys’ club known as the comic book industry has slowly reopened its doors to the species it enjoys ogling the most — females. As publishers find their core male readership abandoning them for video games, DVDs and the Internet, new readers are critical to the survival of the over 70-year-old medium.

Tapping into the disposable income of the fairer sex seems like an obvious choice — although even having to consider the proposal reveals just how little the male-dominated industry knows about its own history.

“Men have short memories,” says Trina Robbins, comic history author and creator of the female-friendly comic Go Girl! “There was a time in America when more girls read comics than boys because there were comics that they wanted to read.”

From the 1940s through the start of the 1960s, titles such as Millie the Model, Nellie the Nurse, Patsy the Typist and Katy Keene were produced in numbers rivaling those of Detective Comics, Superman and Captain Marvel Adventures. Female readers actually equaled their male counterparts in numbers.

Then, thanks to a combination of parental concerns, censorship pressures and the emergence of more profitable alternative mediums, the books disappeared from the department stores, train stations, bus depots and grocery stores that had been selling them. As a result, once popular titles were canceled.

Maggie Thompson, editor of the 34-year-old Comic Buyer’s Guide, a publication for fans and industry insiders, believes the loss of these distribution points and their replacement in the 1970s by more specialized comic book stores decimated female readership.

“Now you had a shop with a ‘Simpsons’ stereotypical comic guy in charge presenting an actively hostile environment for a 12-year-old girl who might be curious about reading a title,” says Mrs. Thompson, who learned to read through the comic format.

Further alienating female readers were stories and art styles catering to older males — too many bad girls, too much muscle and too much might — that emerged through the mid-1990s.

“Girls were never interested in reading about Spider-Man’s girl friend,” Miss Robbins says. “They also did not want to read about female characters with humongous breasts. They not only find this very insulting, they cannot relate to it.”

Only in the last 10 years — with the appearance of smaller publishers such as Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press and Slave Labor Graphics along with the explosive rise of “manga” (Japanese comics) in the American market — have female readers begun to firmly re-embrace the art form.

“An older generation of comic book executives has been pushed aside, and younger people more in touch with real popular culture have come in,” explains Colleen Doran, a veteran of DC Comics and Marvel Comics best known for her science fiction epic A Distant Soil (Image Comics).

“It was a little strange to work with a man born in 1928 who is older than your grandfather,” she says. “That group never did believe women could draw comics or would ever read them.”

The new availability of comics in trade paperback and graphic novel formats and at venues such as major book retail chains and libraries has further opened up opportunities.

“Girls were suddenly seeing comic books for the first time,” says Miss Doran, noting that previously, “if girls did not specifically visit comic book shops, they could never have access to them.”

The popularity of manga has cemented the return of the female reader. Miss Robbins, Miss Doran and Mrs. Thompson all report seeing large numbers of females in the costumes of their favorite manga characters streaming through the halls of the major comic book conventions last year.

Recently, industry giants DC Comics and Marvel Comics have awakened to the obvious.

DC has been working with legendary female creators such as Jill Thompson and Wendy Pini. Its big product push has been the introduction of its CMX imprint, which reprints Japanese comics in a digest-sized format specifically targeting the teenage girl. Titles such as Land of the Blindfolded, Swan and Musashi now take up space on shelves once overrun with Batman, Superman and X-Men comics.

Marvel, the home of Wolverine, the Punisher and Spider-Man, has allowed female creators such as Fiona Avery to spearhead new books such as Arana and will be introducing its own manga line in the near future.

The female reader has always been ready to rediscover comics, Miss Robbins believes. Publishers just needed to rediscover the formula.

“They want to read about cute teenage girls that they can understand [in stories] in which a strong heroine takes the initiative,” she says. “They want adventure and a little romance for their hero, which seems to be a pretty simple concept.”

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