Courting female readers by marketing to men
At this year’s Comic Con, it seemed like Marvel Comics did well for itself. They launched a new re-imagining of the MU through Marvel NOW, announced many new titles, and shared big news about the upcoming MCU movies coming out in the next two years. (Oh, and then they announced Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies, too, the idea of which people seem to either truly love or truly hate. I’m not going to go into it. Only time will tell.) In the midst of all this pomp and circumstance, Jeff Parker’s Red She-Hulk made a hopeful bid for its existence on Parker’s blog, in an entry titled HULK SMASH STATUS QUO. And, to Parker’s credit, it sounds really promising.
WOMEN CHARACTERS DO NOT SELL BOOKS. Especially in big Action-Adventure. This is what I’m hearing, like it’s foolish to even think of trying it. This is the prevailing wisdom in comics.
Until it’s not.
Bad practices in the past decades have paved over diversity we once took for granted. Instead of considering the comics industry this closed loop that can never change, how about we find those shoots trying to break through concrete and clear their path?
So we’re all on the same page: Comic publishers feel women don’t read comics, and female characters don’t need to be supported in comics because, hey, who’s reading anyway, right? Cool. We’re learning from our mistakes, and the fact that female fans literally just shelled out millions and millions of dollars in Marvel’s The Avengers merchandise over the summer, as well spent the entire year prior screaming at DC and Marvel to pay attention to the people paying their bills. As for the comic itself,
Red She has been recently featured in THE DEFENDERS from which I’m borrowing here because it’s terrific. My editor, Mark Paniccia, asked for permission to try something different and bring her in as our book’s lead. It would make for a serious shake-up. When I heard Marvel agreed, I couldn’t believe it- this would allow me to do a very different kind of story. I wanted to go even more off course. Marvel of course has had a She-Hulk book before, most recently excellently done by Dan Slott and company. So we’ve seen a female Hulk and how heroic she can be.
Again, this all sounds great. Until you realize that the female fans he’s trying to court? Yeah, they’re not even mentioned, because this whole pitch is aimed at convincing men that Betty is worth reading about despite being a woman. Because, hey, women don’t read comics, right?
Though you may only know my superhero stories, I am far from someone who thinks that genre IS comics, and I know that others may fit female readers more naturally. But I don’t think we should abandon trying, because despite conventional wisdom, many do want stories about powerful women in big action- did Buffy the Vampire Slayer teach us nothing? This gender does have daydreams about throwing cars around and flattening fools with a backhand swat. The superhero model appeals to something fundamental in us- that we feel, despite appearances, we have untapped power that could break out in the right circumstances.
The HULK myth goes further- and somewhat scarier- because it acknowledges our rage. The feeling that deep inside, whether from personal history or even wilder remnants still left from our ancestors, we harbor something devastating. Feelings we have to work at constantly because in the real world, letting that out doesn’t end well. But to be Hulk is to let that wave roll right out and wash away everything in your way. If you don’t think the ladies can relate to that, you haven’t talked to any lately.
Look, he has his heart in the right place. I get it. I probably won’t be picking this up, as I’m a bit lukewarm to all things Hulk, but I appreciate the effort to try to do something different. The reality is that even attempts like this — reactionary though they may be to the public outcry of female fans in the last year — still miss the point. Writers and publishers are still spending time and money attempting to persuade male readers that female characters have a right to exist. That they are heroic and interesting and worth reading. And do you know what that smacks of? Uncertainty in your product and a general misconception of your readership. They still seem to forget that basically half the people who made The Avengers the box office success that it was were women, and have been active in voicing hopes for a Black Widow film, as well as films for other female characters and characters of color. (And yet Marvel wants to make an Ant-Man movie? Yeah, okay, sure.) They want my money, but they also want to pretend that I’m some strange and endangered species that must be carefully cultivated, and then blatantly ignored. Because, you know, that’s good business practice.
Instead of trying to appeal to these supposedly invisible women who keep buying Marvel stuff, Marvel is going down the same old road of overcompensating to justify the existence of female heroes. If I read a press release about a title, making a plaintive bid for the protagonist’s heroism and bravery despite the handicap of some unrelated issue, I would be hesitant to pick that title up. Why? Because you’re basically telling me that this character sucks and you’re hoping I don’t notice it, and give you money anyway. Or, even worse, you’re putting this character out there in an attempt to appease people who happen to suffer from this same (imagined) handicap, and that you’re kind of not proud of what you’ve done, but you still want my money. I really do think Jeff Parker is trying to do the right thing. The only problem is, the right thing isn’t immediately clear to him. Like most everybody else in mainstream comics (or television, or movies, or video games — or, you know, everywhere else), he still thinks he has to beg for readers to care about female characters, or, at least, look past their gender and read about them anyway.
Do you want to know the deep dark secret of writing successful female characters? (Or any character, for that matter?) Treat them like a person, don’t make their gender (or religion, or race, or sexual orientation) the mournful stumbling block that they must overcome in order to live productive lives, and let them stand on their own two feet. If a story flops, it flops, but at least you tried to do right by your own creation and your readership. Otherwise? Dude, it’s just more of the same.
The one thing I will agree with, Jeff Parker, is this:
What it needs next is you- using your influence and persuasion to convince readers to to try it, and stores to double down. There’s some book you follow out of habit that hasn’t entertained you in a while. Let it sit out a couple of rounds and give the smashing red lady two months to convince you, that’s all I ask. Not only can it work, we’ll all be surprised what will happen next with this hitting the radar in a big way. Conventional wisdom will flip over. Suddenly more books become possible at Marvel and DC.
Money talks. Keep supporting the titles and characters you care about. Keep supporting the films you want to see more of. Keep buying junk and writing nasty blogs and maybe, just maybe, these guys will actually admit that we exist.