“Nothing like attending a few comic conventions over the years to see just how much readers love the things they do, how much they care.” – Kate Beaton
The comics blogosphere has been doing some soul-searching due to a couple of recent events: (1) a fan dressed as Batgirl appearing at every DC Comics panel and asking why they don’t hire more women to make their comics, and (2) a retailer making racist “jokes” about a new African-American Spider-Man that will be introduced in the Ultimates comics imprint. Some further ink has been spilled about (3) Jack Kirby’s family losing an attempt to claim ownership of characters that he created under “work for hire” conditions at Marvel.
I won’t bother discussing the second issue; it’s pointless. The retailer made racist jokes, got upbraided for it, stupidly tried to justify his behaviour. I hope his version of The Android’s Dungeon takes a serious sales hit because he is making retailers look bad everywhere, and god knows those people have enough to worry about.
Steve Bissette posted extensively at his blog about the third issue, while leveraging the first to make his point that one fan can make a difference. He believes that we who care about comics, especially Marvel comics, should boycott anything that is derived from Jack’s work. I am a bit uncomfortable with that idea, because it seems like it would be punishing up and coming creators as much as it would Marvel – if not more – but I see where Bissette is coming from.
I quote from webcomics superstar Kate Beaton above because to me, she and people like her are the answer to issue 1. Why aren’t more women hired at DC? The SDCC panels’ answers apparently ranged from noncommittal to making noises about gender not being a factor; that the selection of talent amounts to a meritocracy. Maybe that is true. It is certainly not hard for me to imagine that DC comics are primarily consumed by men my age, followed by men in their 30s, then men in their 20s. I don’t know any women at all who read mainstream DC superhero titles. If they do read DC titles, they are probably Vertigo books like Fables or Sandman collections.
Nor can I think of any female creators at DC apart from Gail Simone, and ones like Linda Medley who left to create their own independent books. I have no doubt that this is ignorance on my part; I couldn’t tell you the names of more than a few men who work there either. I don’t read a lot of their comics, or any superhero comics, because for whatever reason, I just don’t find them very interesting.
On the other hand, I have been enjoying “independent” comics from the likes of Kate Beaton, Alison Bechdel, Linda Medley, Faith Erin Hicks, Jessica Abel, Hope Larson, et al., and over the course of my life I have been pleased to see the balance shift in comics in terms of what kind of stories get told, who tells them, and what style of art is presented. These innovations have not historically come from Marvel or DC or Archie or any other major publisher that has a house style, be it in terms of actual art style or the approach to storytelling. Sure, each of them can hold up an example of times they have been “inclusive,” but come on. Those characters and stories smack of tokenism.
The innovations have come from companies like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, assorted manga publishers I suppose, and what do you know? None of them are known for publishing superheroes. Which makes me wonder, is it really institutionalized sexism that keeps women out of DC or is it that women are just plain smarter than men? I know that sounds glib but I’m only half-joking. Nor do I want to say that women who DO want to make superhero comics are dumb. I just think that most superhero comics are boring, juvenile, and constructed in a way that discourages creativity; so anytime someone like a Grant Morrisson or Neil Gaiman or Darwyn Cooke comes along and does something interesting with that formula, I tip my hat to them, regardless of their age, race, gender, or anything else.
Anyway, my feelings on the merits of DC’s books are immaterial. If a woman loves those characters (and we need not insult them by assuming that all they want to write or draw is DC’s female characters), then they should have the opportunity to take them for a spin. If they don’t have the opportunity due to institutional sexism, obviously that is wrong.
I think there is a bit of a chicken-egg problem at work created by the modern supply chain. Kids, not just girls but all kids, do not have the kind of access to comics that I did as a child; you cannot find them in every newsstand or gas station, only in comic shops, some book stores, and if you’re lucky, the library. If a woman is very lucky, she might live near a comic shop that isn’t an Android’s Dungeon. The bookstores and libraries will carry relatively recent trade paperbacks, mainly from the top few publishers, plus manga. What I’m getting at is, how can we expect girls to grow up loving superheroes, and in turn want to create comics about them, when they are more likely to be exposed to manga and webcomics and independent graphic novels?
But let’s say that enough girls do overcome these barriers to represent a significant number of hopeful creators knocking at DC’s door. How do they get work there? I am inclined to agree with Grant Morrison, whose reply to the SDCC fan was simply “send your stuff in.” The same advice you would give to anyone.
It’s not complicated. If you want to draw Superman, if that is your dream, then draw Superman. Draw him all the time. Become an expert at drawing Superman. Learn how to draw the anatomy, the supporting characters, the backgrounds, the action shots, the panel to panel, all of it. Draw Superman until your hand falls off. Then take your best pages, make photocopies, and send them in. While I don’t doubt that there is some institutional sexism in place at DC and pretty much every other giant media corporation in the West, there is one thing that will trump any resistance to hiring: proving to them that you can make them money.
Whatever your gender or race or age or whatever else, if you prove to DC that you can make them money with your artwork or your story, you’re going to get work. The question is whether or not you are willing to play their game their way: draw in the style they believe will sell, write the kind of stories they believe will sell. Again, DC and Marvel are not about innovation; they are playing it safe and trying to hold on to their golden calves for as long as they can while milking them for film ideas. Because of the money involved, they see themselves as the “big leagues” of the comics business, and as such, the competition to work there is fierce.
Personally, I would rather see women and men create their own comics, create new worlds and characters (and heroes, if they must), and achieve their vision outside of that sterile environment. The world needs more books like Fun Home or Smile than it needs a few more issues of any superhero title.