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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Superhero Women- Why They Don’t Sell

I’ve had the chance to read many comic books with female superheroines as the lead character.  Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, Wonder Woman, Claws of The Cat. Shanna The She-Devil. Red Sonja. The Black Widow.

I wasn’t impressed by most of them.

With the exception of Max Alan Collins & Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree, John Byrne’s She-Hulk, Jo Duffy and Jim Balent’s 1990’s Catwoman run, AC comics Femforce, and Spider-Girl, I found most of comics I read featuring female heroines disappointing. 

If I had to pay for most of them I wouldn't be picking up a second issue.

Reading some of those comics I began to understand why most comic books featuring Superhero women don’t sell.

While many superheroines have visually striking designs, the books that feature them just aren’t written well. Instead of compelling stories featuring characters readers can relate to and identify with, Comic books featuring superhero women are usually misogynistic, sexist and patronizing. They literally insult your intelligence.

And this is coming from a man. Who grew up with sisters and a cousin.  They were a lot harsher on these comics than I was growing up.

Character wise, most superheroines are one-dimensional. They usually have no personality and no “voice” that speaks to the reader. Personally I believe not being able to speak to the reader is one of the reasons why many a comic with a superheorine fails to catch on and reach a larger audience. If a character can't connect with the reader then they have no reason to care about them or their adventures.

Outside of their costumes there’s nothing distinct to make most superheroines stand out. You could literally change the main character’s dialogue in a lot of these books with a supporting character and it’d be the same.

Most superheroines lack the multidimensionality of their male counterparts. Which is sad. After reading an issue readers know Green Arrow is a liberal, Captain America is noble, Hawkeye is a wise guy, Superman is a Boy Scout, Jughead Jones likes Hamburgers and that . Heck, readers know that Norman Osborn’s favorite color was green and that’s why he became the Green Goblin.

But the women? Can anyone tell me a superheroine’s favorite food? Their favorite color? What hobbies they have during downtime? Who is their best friend? Do they have a soft side? What's their strength? Their weakness? This is the kind of depth that turns a character into a fan favorite.

And when it comes to storytelling superhero women don’t get well action packed tales filled with fantastic adventures. No their books are filled with exposition, plot devices, and clichés.

To cover up for all the weak writing and poor character development, readers are distracted with lots of shots of a heroine or her alter ego in lingerie, in the bathtub, wrapped in a towel fresh out of the shower, or in some cases nudity hidden by a nicely placed piece of furniture or a wall. (actually saw this in a couple of issues in the first volume of Spider-Woman from the 80's ) Or they just take a trip to the beach for some bikini shots. Now I don’t mind this kind of cheesecake, but when it’s done excessively it takes away from the substance of the story.

On top of all this bad writing, comic book series featuring a superheroine have the worst villains. Superheroines often get warmed over third-rate bad guys. Rarely do they ever get their own distinct rogues gallery of bad guys. Moreover, they rarely ever get a chance to develop relationships with said foes that turn into the arch-enemies that keep readers coming back to pick up the next issue.

Thanks to the warmed-over third rate villains and the lack of a serious relationship between them, there’s never a sense of danger or tension in a superheroine’s adventures. The reader is never left on the edge of their seat anticipating the next issue like the stories featuring the male heroes. That alone keeps customers from coming back to buy the next issue. 

And every writers’ favorite theme in comics with superheroine protagonists is mental illness. Seriously, Why is it that every superheroine is always some sort of crazy at some point in their careers? I mean all the time superhero women are depicted as having some sort of mental problem. Phoenix went insane. So did the Scarlet Witch. Tigra. Carol Danvers, the feminist would blank out every time she went into Ms. Marvel in the early issues of her first series. Aurora from Alpha Flight had two personalities.

It seems every time a comic book writer runs into a jam with the development a female character’s personality or their storyline they pull out the crazy card.

As a man who writes multidimensional female characters I can tell you it’s a cop out. Giving up. Not pushing to actualize a character’s potential.

Personally, I feel writers use this tired plot device to avoid composing a distinct “Voice” for a female character and telling a story where a superheroine will stand out amongst the boys.

And when female characters start establishing a strong “voice” that speaks to the reader like Jubilee, Barbara Gordon, Sue Dibney, Alexandra DeWitt, Stephanie Brown and Pepper from Pre-Pussycats Josie, they wind up being raped mutilated, crippled, or in the case of Pre-Pussycats Josie’s Pepper, they’re sent off to limbo where they’re never heard from again.

It’s like comic book publishers don’t want readers to enjoy a comic with a female character in the lead. Moreover, I don’t think all the white males in that industry want a superheroine become as popular as a male superhero. In most cases, the ladies are just there to be a placeholder for a trademark for a publisher.

Maybe the white boys in the comic book industry fear girls and women coming into their Honeycomb Hideout known as the comic shop and playing with their toys. Maybe they fear being called on their sexism and misogyny. Maybe they fear being told to tone down the skimpy costumes, the gratuitous nudity and excessive violence against women. Who knows?

All I know is that the comic book industry could do a better job with in developing its female characters.

I feel it’s possible to write a superheroine who is multidimensional. Who has a personality. Interests. Hobbies. A voice. A sense of humor. A character who celebrates what’s great about being a woman instead of trying to be the equal to a man.

Moreover, I feel it’s possible to write a superheroine who has relationships and rivalries with bad guys that keep readers buying the next issue.

I feel the comic book industry has slept on the female reader for too long. And I feel they sleep on the potential for that demographic because most of the White boys  in the industry don’t know how to write for material for female readers.

Many of the superheroine books have failed over the past 4o years not just because of the misogyny, but because of the way they’re structured. The story models they use don’t allow female readers to access the content. Most female readers enjoy character driven stories. They enjoy watching the development of the relationships between the characters in the story.

In addition to being an escape, a comic featuring a superheroine should feature experiences women relates to and identifies with. I dare to say many a superheroine is too pretty, and that's a turn off for a lot of women. Most female readers want to read about women who share their experiences. Bad hair days. Costumes that fit one day and don’t the next. Ponytail days cause you didn’t have enough time to style your hair. That chick that just doesn’t like them. Hanging out with family and friends. Feeling nervous around that guy they like. Women aren’t perfect, and a character flaws make for a much more compelling read.

I feel if the comic book industry offered better written female characters in character driven stories filled with relationships they’d finally have an opportunity to reach a larger audience of girls and women. An audience of millions strong. An audience that will remain loyal for decades.

Authors like Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins, can attest to having 20 plus year relationships with readers through multiple books which are passed on from mother to daughter.

And the comic book industry would benefit from relationship with female readers too. Girls and women have a stronger-word-of mouth than boys. When a girl or a woman loves a product, she tells EVERYONE. They freely let people borrow their books. They buy books and give them to people to try out. They get on social media. They tell people where the book is sold.

And the people they recommend books to are new readers. Casuals. Non-comic fans. People who have never read a comic book before. The kinds of new readers the comic book industry desperately needs.

If a woman likes a product she’ll tell ten other people.

Women  bring foot traffic into stores. They are the primary consumer in most American households. What they bring into the household usually becomes a staple in that house. And if girls and women start buying comics in significant numbers it could help pull the comic book industry out of the slump it’s been in for the past twenty years.


  1. Shawn, you have a very wide blog audience, but each time i read one like this, I wish for a vast audience. This is not just true for comics superhero women, it's true for all woman'e writing.

    The people who write these seem to be trying to outdo men in the hatertion departmment. Make a fool or me and i'll make a fool of you back. The whole concept of this kind of thing is simply immature, and yes as you say, misogynistic. And what's the point. if ever humans needed to come together, it's now, with so many new dangers facing us.

    As far as I can see, as usual, you hit the nail squarely on the head. Why not do a collection of these excellent blogs and hit the hustings publicizing. I think if you'll continue to hew it to the line, let the chips fall where they may, you'll be delightfully surprised to see your audience and your fortunes grow like Jack and the Beanstalk's giant. But believe me to a far, far better end.

    Still shaking my head at the excellence of these blogs. Societal commentary at its best!

  2. This is all too true. As a teenaged girl myself, I often wonder why so many beloved characters in literature are men or boys. I try to remember sometimes a character is better suited as a male or as a female. It's true that whenever something strikes a girl as interesting. For example, 'My Sister's Keeper' (told by both a male and female point of view) was very popular and many women and girls gave the books to their friends. It was finally a book without the stereotypes we commonly see and well developed, realistic chatacters.
    I truly can see your message in this wonderful post. :)