- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2014

It’s Ladies Night in the District — but it’s not being held at a bar or at a concert club. It’s at a comic book store in Union Station, and the women in attendance on a recent weekend night indulge in a shared enthusiasm for one of the last markets that typically excludes them.

Among the women were Capitol Hill interns, an aspiring screenwriter and a couple of law school students.

“Professionally, I work as a lifeguard. For a living, I collect comic books,” said India Pasiuk, 21.

They came from a variety of backgrounds and traveled from Capitol Hill, Arlington and Baltimore. Some had a deep-rooted affair with comics, and others were still getting acquainted. Those who were looking for a place to start in the comic world were plied with suggestions.

Here, they can embrace their inner geek — far from the sneers and prejudices of young men to whom the industry is geared.

Esther Kim, 27, manager of Fantom Comics, greeted about two dozen women as they arrived around 6 p.m. on a Sunday night. A few early birds decorated an official Ladies Night poster that would hang outside the store. No one could find a red marker, so Superman’s logo and Captain America’s shield were colored pink instead.

By the time most of the women arrived, the corner table had collected a full spread of Uno’s pizza and cheese sticks, homemade cookies and brownies.

When a woman sporting the costume colors and headgear of the Marvel Comics villain Loki burst onto the scene armed with two containers filled with beer-candied bacon, Ladies Night was officially in session.

Although it’s long been considered a male-dominated market, no definitive statistics show the demographics of comics adherents. But there is evidence that women can be wooed into the world of superpowers and spandex. Superhero films — such as DC Comics’ Superman and Batman franchises and Marvel Comics’ X-Men and Iron Man series — are carrying comics characters to broader audiences.

Entertainment Weekly reported that the opening weekend audience for the 2012 Marvel Comics film “The Avengers” was 40 percent female. NBC News said the 2012 opening weekend of “The Amazing Spider-Man” attracted an audience that was 42 percent female.

Still, industry observers say the numbers of female comics enthusiasts is difficult to define.

“DC did a survey and said that only 7 percent of their readers were women, but an offshoot of the survey came up with 23 percent,” said Jessica Maybury, editor of the website Girls Like Comics. “At conventions, the attendee demographics are far closer to 50 percent.”

Maggie Thompson, an industry icon who for decades published the Comic Buyer’s Guide trade magazine, said the number of women who attend large comic book conventions has grown.

“At the first big New York City comics convention, there were four females. That was 1966, and I was one of the four. Things have changed wonderfully,” she said.

Ms. Thompson, who last year began auctioning her personal comic book collection estimated at more than $1 million in value, said she started reading comics in the 1940s. She said readership back then was about evenly divided between boys and girls. Over the years, however, as the comics rack disappeared from the drugstore and the five-and-dime, the industry changed to suit the market.

“Eventually, comics shops became the most dependable locations in which to find comics — but those shops were seldom in sites that were easily accessible to girls,” she said. “And that meant that comic book publishers increasingly tailored their products to a market in which the readership was increasingly male — and in which many of the creators had grown up loving superhero characters and wanting to create their own.”

Ms. Maybury noted that in the digital age women have an opportunity to re-enter the market — without having to visit the comic book store.

“As a woman, going to a comic book shop can be a skin-crawling, self-conscious experience. It’s kind of like an out-of-town stranger walking into the local bar and everyone stops talking to stare at them. Obviously, this isn’t the case everywhere, but it’s a huge deterrent. Thank God for digital comics,” she said.

But women still find other obstacles to participating in the culture of comic books, whose modern storylines address darker themes and more intense issues.

Elizabeth Anderson, who works at Fantom Comics, created a website called Femmes in the Fridge for the online community of women who love comics. The name comes from a 1994 issue of the DC series Green Lantern in which the villain, Major Force, killed Green Lantern’s girlfriend and stuffed her body into a refrigerator to provoke the hero.

Ms. Anderson, 26, said comic book writer Gail Simone coined the phrase “women in refrigerators” in online discussions tracking the trend in which women become plot devices by being raped, killed or stripped of their superpowers.

The veteran comic book fans at Ladies Night were aware of the trend of hypersexualizing female characters and potentially alienating female fans.

Ms. Anderson said nine out of 10 comments posted on her website are sexual threats and that she blocks offensive comments to ensure a “safe space” for women to discuss comics without fear of gender-based backlash.

In a November post, Ms. Anderson wrote about trying to inspire other women with similar interests to participate in what can be an intimidating environment.

“I spent most of my life to date in the fridge,” she said. “I’m going to open the door now.”

Ladies Night was a way to build on social media opportunities and to bring together people.

“As much as I want money for the store, I really want ladies into comics,” Ms. Kim said. To that end, she created a page for women on the Tumblr website called “So do YOU read comics?”

About a quarter of the crowd learned about the event via Tumblr. They soon discovered that many knew one another by Tumblr names only and were excited to meet the faces behind their favorite comic culture bloggers.

Raven Smith, 26, is a regular customer and said she admired the goal of creating a community for female comic fans. She said she lives near a bigger comic store but prefers to go to Fantom.

“These people are the nicest. There’s a tight-knit community here that you won’t find other places,” Ms. Smith said.

• Update: Fantom Comics on July 23 opened a new location near Dupont Circle at 2010 P Street Northwest

• Emily Hoosier can be reached at ehoosier@washingtontimes.com.

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