The stars of Grace Randolph's superhero comic Supurbia, on its first issue cover.
I came to Comic-Con International this weekend with an eye on gender—how would female fans and comics creators be represented in the convention that draws 150,000 proud nerds to San Diego?
Day one alone of the epic convention included three gender-specific panels: The Witty Women of Steampunk, Gender in Comics, and The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: Dual Identities, which all included a mix of academics, comics creators, and fan community organizers.
My takeaway from three panels was big and simple: the female experience is the human experience, people just aren't trained to think that way. Jeanine Schaefer, editor of the new all-female X-Men series, said on the Gender in Comics panel that when the idea first came up to do an all-female X-Men series, "There was a lot of, 'What if they all get their periods at the same time? I wouldn't want to be a dude when that happens!'" Marvel went forward with the comic, but, "Online, people kept asking, 'Why can't you just identify with dudes?' And I just wanted to be like, 'Guys! I've been doing that my whole life because there is no one else to identify with!'"
Dire predictions aside, X-Men #1 sold more than any other comic in the month in which it was released.
Despite the overall optimism that readers can connect with female characters, queer characters, and characters of color, panel moderator Christina Blanch noted that in the popular imagination, comics is still a man's world. A Ball State University professor who also teaches a popular online gender-through-comics class, Blanch related the results of a class experiment in which she had students read comics in public and gauge the reaction. Every single one of the women was questioned by passersby about why she was reading a comic. On the other hand, only one male student was questioned, and he was reading Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The panelists agreed that the development that has most changed the landscape for women in comics is the ability to buy them online—without going to the kinds of stores that Blanch referred to as "rapey." At the same time, creators urged the audience to pre-order comics they like from their neighborhood stores because that's the only way the stores will ever carry them. Comics writer Grace Randolph says she often hears from fans that Supurbia, her multi-racial comic populated with both male and female heroes, is not available in stores. Dafna Pleban, an editor at Boom!, which publishes Supurbia, bemoaned the effect that a lack of diversity has had on her favorite genre:
"Women love superheroes. We love characters who are empowered both physically and as people who make decisions in their lives. This perception that women read different genres is why the superhero genre is where it is now—because it has limited voices. In the end, being inclusive and being seen by other people as human, that's just good writing. If you want to tell the story you have to do it."
Though the Witty Women of Steampunk panel contained very few actual references to the gender of the panelists or of their characters, Anina Bennett, author of Boilerplate, summed up why steampunk—a subgenre of speculative fiction set in a psuedo-historical, steam-powered era—provides such fertile ground for female artists who want to reclaim an historical image of womanhood:
People make a categorical distinction in their minds between fiction and history, and they think that history is pure fact, utterly objective, no information left out. But history is written by winners, we all know that. So part of what we're trying to do is tweak those lines a little bit and get them to think about when they're reading other things that are supposedly non-fiction, there's always a point of view.
I tracked down panelist Kaja Foglio, author of steampunk comic Girl Genius, on the convention floor to find out what it is about steampunk that makes it a good fit for women writers and female characters.
"I think we see the age of steam as this time of adventure and travel and that's something that people enjoy. I mean everybody does. And there really were women doing exciting things back then. They just didn't get as much press," said Foglio. "So now you have female creators saying, 'Cool, we can tell her story.' But it's not just because I'm a woman—I think it's more of human thing really, to like exotic locations and interesting machines."
Other comics coverage: Why I Love Cosplay; The Five Best Genderqueer Characters in Comics; Four Women-Created Graphic Novels You Should Acquire Immediately; An Interview with X-Men #1 Series Editor Jeanine Schaefer. Plus, listen to our podcast episode all about nerds!
CORRECTION: The original version of this post mistakenly attributed Dafna Pleban's quote to Grace Randolph.