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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why superhero women don’t sell Part 2

I read a lot of comics featuring superheroines. And from my years of research I began to figure out why most aren’t popular with readers.

Some would think it’s the gratuitous cheesecake panels that turns off readers, or the misogynistic violence like women in refrigerators. But for the most part what keeps superheroines from selling in their solo books is the fact that their stories are ABSOLUTELY AWFUL. If one looks at a superheroine’s comic they’ll notice the same pattern of missing story elements such as:

No Supporting cast. Most male comics feature big supporting casts. Iconic characters who we can pick out of the background and know they are integral to that character’s story and history. Batman has Alfred and Comissioner Gordon. Superman has Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White.

Batgirl has in her supporting cast….And She Hulk has in her supporting cast…. And Ms Marvel has in her supporting cast….Crap, I can’t think of anyone. And I’ve been reading comics since I was four years old.

No Best Friend. Almost every woman in the world has a Best Friend or a circle of friends. Heck, even an antisocial misfit like Daria Morgendorffer hung out with Jane Lane at Lawndale High.

But superheroines…for some strange reason seem to avoid contact with other women. Seriously, name one superheroine who has a best friend. Only one I can think of is Etta Candy from old Golden Age Wonder Woman stories. The rest…tend to drift having occasional acquaintances or they spend most of their time hanging with the fellas at the Batcave or the Hall of Justice. This is the primary why girls don’t relate to superhero women or identify with them, they don’t do the things real women do like spending time with their friends.

Comic writers need to understand relationships are important to women if they want to reach female readers. Women love to hang out together. They love spending time with each other. And they have lasting friendships that go on for years, if not decades. If comics featured superheroines doing more things with their best friends, they’d probably attract more female readers.

Poorly defined powers. Yeah, most superheroines have powers. But they don’t use them in ways that make them stand out to the reader.

Any character can have flight, super strength, and invulnerability. They can have a utility belt full of cool gadgets. But it’s how they use them that make them interesting to readers.

For example, Jean Grey had a set of kickass cosmic powers as the Phoenix, up there with Marvel’s Silver Surfer, Thanos and Michael Korvac. But because writers didn’t know how to use those powers in creative ways with her, she became a boring character whose primary function was to go crazy, die, or be a deus ex Machina to end an X-men story that got stuck on the ending.

When a writer takes the time to define how a character uses their powers it makes them stand out from the crowd. It’s these kinds of moments that make readers remember a character and make comic book history.

No Archenemies. The core of a comic book is the rivalry between the hero and the villain. The villain needs a reason to hate the hero, and the hero needs a reason to protect people from the villain. In most comics featuring female superheroes there is no archenemy, a woman you love to hate.

I always found that odd considering how some women can look at another woman and literally hate her for no absolute reason. I’d think comic writers would capitalize on that one fact of life for a story or two

When it comes to YA and Women’s fiction relationships are paramount to the story, and the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist drives the story to its conclusion. Readers see that woman who hates another woman for absolutely no reason. And finding out why she hates her is integral to the plot. But in superheroine comics, relationships between women often take a backseat. I’ve never seen a truly great feud between a superheroine and her arch nemesis, where the two characters have fantastic chemistry and literally bring out the very best in each other.

Craptastic Rogues Galleries. When it comes to bad guys, Superhero women don’t get their own A-list bad guys with the A-list powers. No, they get to take on the fifth stringers the guys don’t have time to fight.

Reading a comic with a superheroine in the lead is like watching an old school WWF wrestling show from 1985. In one corner you have the brand name heroine, Batgirl, Supergirl, Wonder Woman and in the other corner you have some no-name jobber in overalls and a rainbow wig who is just here for the heroine to beat up on and show readers how powerful they are. No story, no challenge, no character relationship, no character development, and no real reason to care about what you just read. Which is why most superheroine stories just aren't memorable to casual readers.

Not building that rogues gallery is what holds back most superheroines and keeps them from getting a following of readers. What gets readers both male and female into comics is the relationships between the characters. And the rivalry between the heroine and the villain(ness) is paramount to telling compelling stories. I’d love to see a superheroine have a truly great assortment of bad guys all her own who felt like credible threats to feud with.

Absolutely horrible storylines. Most comics featuring superheroines have next to no story. Stuff kind of happens and the story ends on a flat note. Reading most superheroine comics, especially the older ones, story is an afterthought. There’s nothing compelling in them to keep you reading or to make you a fan of the character except the cheesecake.

To really get readers excited, a story has to have ENERGY. It has to make you CARE about what’s going on. I’ve only read a handful of superheroine adventures that excite me, like AC Comics’ Femforce, Marvel’s Spider-Girl and DC’s Huntress and Birds of Prey. In those comics there’s a huge focus on plot and on character relationships. But for the most part women get the sort end of the story stick in comics. If only superheroines got the storylines and premises their YA Fiction contemporaries had, their adventures would be flying off the shelf.

Doing weird shit. I remember reading Old Spider Woman comics where she’d be lounging around the house naked. And some of those Golden Age Woman stories I read online were just…CREEPY.

If you have a comic with an attractive woman in it, the last thing the reader wants to see is her doing weird ass shit like getting a moon tan, swimming home buck naked after losing her costume in  a fight (saw both of these events in Spider-Woman comics) or Amazon women dressing up like does, being hunted,  tied up and pretending to baked in a pie. (saw this in a Golden Age Wonder Woman comic) Or the unused panels of a Catwoman comic where Selina hops the fence of Wayne Manor and strips out of her costume and stands on the lawn.

I mean, I’m one of those guys who likes to share his comics with his male and female friends and family, many of which are non comic fans. And there’s nothing like a panel or two of characters like Spider-Woman doing weird shit like just being naked for no reason or any Golden Age Wonder Woman story to make them uncomfortable about the hobby.  I'd rather read about Batgirl and Huntress in the feminine Hygiene section deciding  between buying Always and Tampax talking about having to fight crime during their time of the month than of the skin crawling shit I just described here.

Gratuitious Nudity/Underwear/Cheesecake Panels. Most readers can understand a cheesecake panel or two, a shower scene after an intense battle, a bathtub scene or a battle ravaged costume. Heck, they can even understand Storm or Starfire’s casual nudity because it relates to their culture and their characters. But some writers and artists tend to go overboard on the nudity when it comes to female characters in solo books. Some of these creative teams don’t understand how to put their content in a context where these kinds of scenes are appropriate and move the story forward. They’re just there to titlate the 12-year-old boy in grown men.

Again, This is the kind of stuff that creeps casual readers out and makes them think comic fans are weirdos. And it keeps them from sharing a superheroine’s comics with their friends and keeps their adventures from selling and building a following

Always going insane. Ever since the Dark Phoenix saga Almost every superheroine has to have a story or series of where she goes CrAzY. And most comic writers think making the heroine have a psychotic episode will add depth to their character.

No, it just shows a writer is out of ideas. And has no idea how to write a good story with women characters. So they cop out and bring in this hackneyed plot device.

Seriously, comic book writers need to give this LAME misogynistic plot device a rest. It’s been done to death. Crazy does not make for interesting storytelling. If anything, it shows how desperate a writer is to make a deadline.

No personality. When I read most male superheroes there’s a clear personality from the first page. Superman is a boyscout. Batman is grim. Hawkeye is a wiseguy. Beast is an intellectual.

Most female characters…are just kind of there. For every Lois Lane, Patsy Walker, Rogue, Jubilee, Sue Dibney, and Pepper from Josie, we get eight female characters who have dialogue that can be interchanged with another background character and literally sound the same. And sadly today, most of the cardboard females are the ones who get to headline a comic while the women who have all the personality and charisma remain supporting characters in the background of male heroes’ comic.

Absolutely Perfect. Yeah, I know superhero are supposed to be attractive. But beautiful women are BORING.  I'd love to see a comic writer write  a story where it's just a ponytail and pajamas kind of nigh for a heroine. Heck, I'd love to write it like I did here.

Whenever I write a female character in a stories like the Isis series, I make an effort to give them flaws. And I found when I gave them flaws, I had a lot more FUN writing them. All the pressure was off to make the character perfect, and the rough edges I gave them  made them more interesting.  In those rough edges I found a woman's inner beauty, like her personality, her charisma, her intelligence and a sense of humor, The way I see it, if writers played up a superheroines their internal flaws instead of their external beauty it'd give them a bit more depth and make them more relatable to both male and female readers.

Boring Secret Identity. Barbara Gordon was a librarian. She-Hulk is a lawyer. Everyone else is…just an “adventurer”. What the heck is that? And how does it pay the bills?

How does a superheroine pay for her costumes when they get ripped up in a fight? I mean, adventurer is a volunteer job. And replacing suits made out of expensive stuff like unstable molecules costs money. If anything, the lack of a day job for a superheroine always seemed like a cop out to me.

It’s not that hard to think of some jobs that women work at that a superheroine could do. Things like college professor, artist, and event planner have lots of downtime so a heroine could suit up and go into action to take on the bad guys.

Day jobs are integral to a characters’ backstory. They’re a major part of a person’s identity in real life and in storytelling. That day job or lack of one, is how a writer moves a plot forward. They’re how a writer sets up a storyline. Stuff happens at the Daily Planet, Daily Bugle, Wayne Enterprises, or Stark Industries.

I’d love to see the heroines alter egos in careers like Science, IT, and Engineering. Career paths girls need to see other women getting into so they can think about pursuing them in real life.

Boring social life. What do most superheroines do on Saturday night? Sit at home Saturday night by themselves washing their costumes? Or is every night a never-ending patrol for the bad guys? Rarely do we get a glimpse of a superheorines’ alter ego at work, play, or engaged in their favorite social activities like we do with the guys.

Seriously, when it’s time to wind down what are a superheroines’ hobbies? What are her interests? What’s her favorite food or her favorite color? Why did she choose the career she got into? All of these questions are rarely answered in a comic book with a superheroine lead. If writers took the time to answer some of them, many of their characters would have a bit more depth and dimension and more readers could get into their adventures.

No “voice”. In good comics the characters “speak” to the reader. In most comics featuring superhero women readers hear…nothing. And when the characters do “speak” to the reader it’s not in a distinct “voice” that makes them stand out from all the characters.

I’ve read lots of superhero women over the years. Phantom Lady, Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman, Black Cat, She Hulk, Rogue Storm, And out of all of them only a handful like Marvel’Comics’ Rogue, Storm, Fox’s Phantom Lady, Harvey’s Black Cat and AC’s FemForce “spoke to me. The rest I could probably interchange their dialogue with another character and it’d sound the same.

Ripping off the guys. Most Superheroines are just copyright and trademark placeholders. A way to keep other companies from making female versions of their popular male characters. Rarely do companies make an effort to create an original superheroine. When they do, they barely make an effort to put a story or a character around them readers can get excited about. A shame.

WACK Costumes. Most Superheroine costumes these days lack that “POP” that catches the readers eye. Lately there’s been this focus on drab dark colors and awkward designs no woman would be caught dead in. Has anyone seen the New 52 Wonder Woman costume? Bland Or the New 52 Supergirl Costume? Horrid. Or the Uncanny Avengers Rogue costume? Boring. No woman would be caught dead in outfits like that. They have absolutely no style and no fashion sense.

Any fashion designer will tell you a great ouftits’ purpose is to draw the attention to the person’s face. And most superheroine outfits today unfortunately are so overdesignedwith lines, ornaments, and seams that they don’t draw the readers’ attention to where the real action is: The face of the man character. In a business where the storytelling medium is visually based a bad costume design often keeps a female character from becoming a fan favorite.

Superheroines could probably sell as well as the guys if comic publishers made an effort to write them a story with some of the missing story elements I listed here. There are some great superheroines out there and if someone took the time to give them a halfway decent story maybe both guys and girls would start picking up their comics and following their adventures on a regular basis. If the comic book industry made a serious effort to court girls and women, there could be as many female comic fans as there are female YA and fantasy readers.


  1. I once wrote a post on why most superheroines aren't really strong characters in the sense that from time to time in some stories they are readily subject to bad influences or in other words they are easily misled into doing work for the villain. Examples would include Terra and Shadowcat at some point (in the case of the latter, she got kidnapped and was sort of possessed and made to attack Wolverine).

    That's kind of misogynistic because it seems that writers don't know how to make them properly strong. As for the skimpy costumes and sexual innuendo that a lot of "strong" female characters are subject to, it's enjoyable at some point but when viewed with a jaded lens, it turns out that the writers can't make up their minds over whether if they honestly wanted to do stories featuring strong female characters or do porn (which is a point brought up by other people).

  2. Ad, I've been writing women for over 20 years and it's not that hard to make a female character strong.

    Strength is more an internal thing, Having the courage and resolve to overcome a challenge or an obstacle or series of obstacles.

    In my YA novel the Thetas, I take the Colleen character and I put her through a series of challenges that allowed the buiding of her internal traits. And in my screenplay All About Marilyn, I showed a lot of her internal strength through actions which defined her character.

    And in the Isis series I put Isis through numerous personal and physical challenges she has to overcome.

    When I write women I find you can still have your cheesecake and eat it too, the substance and texture of the character can overcome the flash of a skimpy costumes if the character is written well enough. Problem is most writers don't give female characters the backstory and story elements to make them stand out from the guys.

    1. I thought Barbara Gordon had something cool going for her as Oracle and her network of superhero contacts?