Are women and comics risky business?

Editor's note: Christian Sager is the creator of "Think of the Children" and "Border Crossings." He has also written essays about the comics industry, punk subculture and national identity.

This summer, “Womanthology,” a hardcover comics anthology made entirely by female creators, raised a staggering $109,000 on the fundraising site Kickstarter.

Also this summer, the comics community argued ad nauseum about the lack of women creating mainstream comics. The accusations culminated at San Diego Comic-Con when several people, including a woman dressed as Batgirl, went to panels about DC’s re-launch and asked why only 1% of their creators were women.

In these events lie an incongruity between the support for women making comics and the gaping gender disparity between mainstream comics creators.

Why is it that mainstream publishers don’t hire as many women? Why don’t they target female readers? Why do they often portray female characters with hyper-sexualized bodies?

"They think it's important because it's what's "known" to sell the best... and not a financial risk," Renae De Liz, comic book artist and project manager for "Womanthology" said.

Cash rules everything around comics
"Women are going where they're being paid, and where they're sought after," said MK Reed, writer of "Americus," and the creator of the web comic "About A Bull."

Since not all female creators want to make super-hero comics, they turn to other publishing avenues like manga, webcomics and small press. Jill Pantozzi, a comic blogger, agrees, adding that female creators also want to go where they’ll see the most growth in their career.

Women have "certainly carved out a lucrative niche industry," in manga,  G. Willow Wilson, an author and graphic novelist, said. She believes the creative teams in manga are likely close to 80% female.

Amy Reeder, one of the few women currently illustrating for DC Comics, started her career in manga, alongside many other female creators. But it's  much harder to find work in that realm today, she said, especially for Americans.

Mainstream publishers have many women working for them now, but in editorial, production and administrative positions, rather than creative ones, said Corinna Bechko, writer of "Heathentown" and the upcoming "Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes."

But, "It's not like you sit in meetings and hear 'we can't hire so-and-so, because she's a woman,'" Janelle Asselin, a former DC associate editor said. "That just doesn't happen."

Editors at mainstream publishers hire creators who they know will deliver, she said, either by selling books through name recognition or because they are reliable. "Trying new talent is a risk," she said.

There are less women self-publishing or working on independent comics, which makes it harder for DC or Marvel to find female creators that can deliver quality work in a decent time frame. Asselin said having those creators reach out to editors is rare.

"In my time as an editor, I've been contacted by exactly one woman looking for work.  I hired her, because she was good and I happened to have a spot to see what she could do.  But if I hadn't known of her, would I have gone looking for a woman, or hired one of the men I know that can do her job?" Asselin said.

For this very reason, Wilson thinks the scarcity of women in the industry never occurs to those in charge. "They're just hiring people who write and draw comics they like," she said. "They honestly didn't understand the magnitude of the problem. Which is both sad and telling."

Because the comics industry is so small, Bechko said, a lot of its hiring depends on networking. "So how does a woman who doesn't know anyone at the company break in?" asks Pantozzi.

Young men are safe investments
If it's a financial risk for mainstream publishers to hire female creators outside of their conventional circles, it's also a risk to produce comics with women as the target audience.

"Think about it from the publisher's point of view," Asselin said. "Say you sell 90% of your comics to men between 18 and 35, and 10% of your comics to women in the same age group.  Are you going to a) try to grow that 90% of your audience because you feel you already have the hook they want and you just need to get word out about it, or b) are you going to try to figure out what women want in their comics and do that to grow your line?"

Comics are a business and publishers are unlikely to take a chance on building female readership, Asselin said. Reeder confirms that there's uneasiness within the industry about taking chances.

“Tender waists and huge mammary glands”
In addition to the risks in hiring female creators and targeting more comics to women, it's also a financial gamble for publishers to change their hyper-sexualized portrayal of the female body.

"The reason the ideal body type is a big deal is merely the fact that it has sold so many books in the past 70 plus years," Jen Vaughn, a blogger and cartoonist said.

"Ideal body types have been selling dolls, make-up and clothes for decades, centuries. The ideal merely changes with society and comics are the weekly proof of the current ideal, smacking you in the face," Vaughn said.

Idealized body images of both men and women are integral to mainstream comics as products, Jeffrey A. Brown, an associate professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University, said.

"Superhero comics have always been rooted in an adolescent male power fantasy for the traditionally young male readers to identify with. It comes down to the pleasure of imagining yourself as achieving our cultural ideal of masculinity," he said.

Wilson agrees. "If superheroes were just like us, they wouldn't be super. So you get idealized bodies, both for men and women," she said.

The problem, Wilson said, is that since these body types are already aggressively marketed to women, the hypersexual bodies of female super-heroes only add to our culture's existing body image crisis.

For example, "instead of getting Hulk-like muscles, they get firm bodies, bigger breasts, and perfect hair," Brown said. "She-Hulk does not get big and veiny, she gets sexy."

"I'm not sure the tender waists of many lead characters could possibly hold up their huge heads of hair and mammary glands," Vaugn said.

Female characters can be both strong and sexy, Pantozzi said, without having breasts their torsos can't support. "Regular size female characters would be fantastic," she said, "but what would be even better would be if we could just see some female characters who weren't so unrealistic in their body shapes."

Women don’t want puppies and rainbows
And what of “Womanthology” and its incredible success? Pantozzi thinks publishers should be scanning the credits in the book to scout for new talent. Asselin however would rather see an increase in the amount of women working for mainstream comics.

Even though projects like “Womanthology” are successful, Asselin doesn’t think they push women into the industry enough. “Doing specialized projects for women only is putting us all in a corner of the playground together instead of letting us play in the sandbox with everyone else, and that’s not fair,” she said.

“Comics fans are an educated bunch who are socially aware and take an active interest in what they consume,” Reeder said, “and they hold publishers accountable.”

This is where publishers seem to get hung up. “They seem to have this image that we want puppies and rainbows,” Pantozzi, said. “All we want are stories that are entertaining, don’t demean women and don’t turn women off by needlessly sexual art.”

At least 30% of the attendees she sees at comics conventions are women, Reeder estimates. “If they aren’t all reading comics,” she said, “we are obviously doing something wrong.”

Asselin has been researching how to increase sales of comics to women for her graduate thesis in publishing at Pace University.

78% of the women she’s surveyed say they read super-hero comics. Most of her respondents also thought comics publishers were bad at marketing to women. “At some point a comic publisher will realize that they can grow their audience by quite a bit by targeting women,” she said. “As long as they go about it in an intelligent way.”