ByTom Bacon, writer at Creators.co
I'm a film-and-TV fan who grew up with a deep love of superhero comics! Follow me on Twitter @TomABacon or on Facebook @tombaconsuperheroes!
Tom Bacon

For many decades, comic books were often considered to be a 'male hobby', and as a result, the classic female superheroes have often been little more than eye-candy. Over the last decade or so, though, that's changed; comics have begun to take female characters more seriously than ever before, and as a result they've gained a lot in terms of female readership too. Although it's hard to get an accurate grasp on the comics market as a whole, one site — Graphic Policy — has been conducting monthly reviews of fans who list 'comic books' among their Facebook likes. They've routinely found that about 47% of self-identifying comic book fans are female.

In celebration of International Women's Day, it's time to take a look at the comic book industry, to assess its historic problems, and to recognize how it's moving on.

The Classic Female Superheroes

"As lovely as Aphrodite - as wise as Athena - with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules - she is known only as Wonder Woman, but who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!"

For creator William Marston, Wonder Woman and her Amazonian culture represented an ideal world, and were designed to challenge the masculine-centric system of Marston's day. But even here, notice that the blurb for one classic issue of All-Star Comics stresses beauty and wisdom first, in marked contrast with the famous Superman declaration: "Faster than a speeding bullet..."

Cast your eyes back to the classic superheroes, and the sad truth is that female characters were a minority. The Wasp was the only female member of the original ; of the 's 'first class', Jean Grey was the only woman; and Wonder Woman stands alone in the classic roster. Other female characters were principally love-interests for male heroes, and were seldom taken seriously; the Golden Age's Superman tended to treat Lois Lane with contempt!

Say what--?!? [Credit: DC Comics]
Say what--?!? [Credit: DC Comics]

Dig a little deeper and things get more saddening. Stan Lee actually tended to forget Jean Grey's name back when he was writing the first X-Men comics, and her powerset — telekinesis and, ultimately, telepathy — was an ability he originally intended to give to every mutant. (That's why an early X-Men comic features Magneto wandering around on the Astral Plane.) What's more, many of his most iconic female characters — from the Invisible Woman to Gwen Stacy — were largely designed out of a sense of wish-fulfilment, as Stan Lee himself tended to be attracted to blondes. Marvel insiders were rather amused when he eventually married a woman with a striking resemblance to Gwen Stacy...

Sleek and Sexy

The original designs for Phoenix. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
The original designs for Phoenix. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

As comics became mainstream, female characters became increasingly common. Legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont was at the forefront of developing female superheroes; he even turned Jean Grey into Phoenix, who he described as a 'Thor analogue'. The X-Men's popularity gradually began to cause a sea-change in comics, with female characters becoming part of the norm.

Unfortunately, editorial staff were quite insistent that sexiness sold. Take the example of Ms. Marvel (soon to hit the big screen as ). She was explicitly designed as a feminist superhero — hence the 'Ms.'. Due to editorial interference, her original design was a strange one; as one reader observed, in a letter published in Ms. Marvel #8:

"Question: where is a woman who wears long sleeves, gloves, high boots and a scarf (winter wear), and at the same time has a bare back, belly, and legs? The Arctic equator? That costume requires a few alterations."

I see their point. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
I see their point. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Artist Dave Cockrum agreed. He did a rather racy sketch as a birthday present for editor Jim Shooter, and soon changed the costume. Granted, he changed it into a sort of cosmic swimsuit, but it was still an improvement.

At least character-work was becoming solid, though. Spurred on in particular by Claremont's success, comic book companies were creating iconic superheroes, and developing them as strong, powerful characters. Sure, sex appeal was still a core part of the design, but now we actually had strong female characters. It was a first step along the road.

The Problem of the 1990s

Just what a girl who can't risk skin-to-skin contact would wear. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
Just what a girl who can't risk skin-to-skin contact would wear. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw comics go through a dramatic period of change. The Comics Code Authority — which for decades had kept artists and writers in check — was losing its power, and artists in particular reveled in their newfound creative freedom. Costumes became scantier than ever before, and every female character's sexiness was emphasized in every possible way. Take the classic "Savage Land" arc, for example, which stripped Rogue down to the tattered remnants of her costume...

Into the '90s, we saw artists like Rob Liefeld develop countless sex-bomb female characters. When a group of artists left the X-offices at Marvel to found Image Comics, their first creations included female characters who were about as hyper-sexualized as it's possible to imagine, and Liefeld still tends to treat female superheroes that way today.

An example. [Credit: Maximum Press]
An example. [Credit: Maximum Press]

This was when comics really became a sort of 'boy's club'. One TV advert for Lynx showed idealized women who, confronted with a man who'd used the deodorant, didn't mind being kept waiting in the rain; forgave missed birthdays; appreciated men ogling their breasts; or, tellingly, reassured men that they collected comics too. Lynx's advert clearly showed the popular view that comics were associated only with masculinity; women were, at best, unexpected - and, at worst, unwelcome.

The New Wave

Kathy Kane's Batwoman. [Credit: DC Comics]
Kathy Kane's Batwoman. [Credit: DC Comics]

The end of the 1990s saw the collapse of the comic book bubble, and nearly drove Marvel to bankruptcy. It took comic book companies a long time, but they gradually began to realize why their comics weren't selling across the board, and the early-to-mid 2000s saw the mainstream companies begin to develop strong female characters. That decade saw particularly strong pushes on both Wonder Woman and Ms. Marvel, for example, with critically-acclaimed runs. Meanwhile, even older characters began to be treated in a different way, with the Invisible Woman now portrayed as a scientist in her own right — rather than just the scientist's girlfriend!

The last few years have seen a readjustment in comic books. Companies have dared to meddle with iconic designs, toying with the idea of removing Power Girl's infamous boob window, or taking Psylocke out of her ninja bathing-suit. Carol Danvers's Ms. Marvel became Captain Marvel, and donned a more sensible flight-suit that's likely to be the one she wears in the film.

The design for the new Captain Marvel. [Credit: Marvel Comics]
The design for the new Captain Marvel. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

This approach has been accompanied by a general increase in diversity across the range. In 2006, DC reintroduced Kathy Kane's Batwoman — a character originally created back in the 1950s as a love-interest for Batman, who at the time was accused of being gay. In an amusing twist, DC chose to reintroduce Kathy Kane as a high-profile lesbian superhero. It initially backfired when DC refused to allow Kathy to marry Maggie Sawyer, with writers J. H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman quitting the book in anger. Now, with DC's Bombshells writer Marguerite Bennett at the helm, Batwoman is in safe hands, and blazing a trail for LGBT representation in mainstream comics. Meanwhile, Marvel's female characters are frequently ethnically diverse; Muslim-American Kamala Khan has become a symbol for racial equality across the United States.

Furthermore, behind the scenes, companies are increasingly hiring more female talent. I recently spoke with one woman in the industry (who will remain anonymous for the purpose of this discussion); when she entered the industry in the early 2000s, she saw huge problems in terms of back-office gender balance, but now she feels it's become a completely different industry. Reflecting this, female characters began to take the lead, and it's telling that many of the recent popular breakout heroes have been female — Squirrel Girl, Spider-Gwen, or Jane Foster's Thor, for example. Not all companies are in the same place; DC made a lot of mis-steps launching their "New 52", but "Rebirth" has moved the company back on track.

The current Green Lanterns! [Credit: DC Comics]
The current Green Lanterns! [Credit: DC Comics]

Reflecting this change in the industry, comic book sales are changing too. We don't have reliable stats — the modern market includes digital, and we don't even get sales figures for those digital platforms. But all the evidence, from sites like Graphic Policy and Comics Beat, indicates that almost 50% of comic book fans are female. What's more, among under-18s female fans are in the majority.

See also:

The comic book industry has changed — for the better. Female characters are now being treated in a completely different way, and as a result comics are now reaching an audience that they gave up on back in the '90s. The improvement in diversity isn't really complete, but the companies have made great strides along the road to equality, and as a result comics are reaching a far wider audience than ever before. It's good to see the comics I love grow up and treat female characters with the respect and love they deserve.

Poll

Do you agree with comics' current approach to female characters?

(Sources: Comics Beat, Graphic Policy, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe; Poll Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

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