Questions of the representation of women in mass media both as their portrayal in works in the public eye and their representation behind the scenes are increasingly being asked in today’s society. For this project, I decided to look at the medium of mass-marketed comic books to see if women are increasingly telling stories through this medium and if that is causing an evolution in the gender makeup of stories told in the medium as a whole. The two main publishers in the field are Marvel and DC, so I considered their output. However as they are both giant corporate entities, no matter their politics, writers and artists have to fit what they’re doing into the overall plans of the publisher and what titles are selling, so the influence of gender may have a less immediately detectable impact when the artist or writer in question may be telling the stories of characters that were created by someone else decades ago. For that reason, I also sought to compare women at those publishers’ output to those at Image comics where properties are creator-owned.
I gathered data on the issues being released at Marvel, DC and Image at 3 different datapoints over the last 10 years, as well as a baseline reading from 1995 which represents a different era in terms of cultural space given to comics, and ideas of representation of women in comics. I analyzed this data in order to see if any overall trends can be noticed in issues that women were involved in contrast to publisher output as a whole and if representation on the stands and and behind the scenes is on the rise overall. The three questions that I’m asking of this data are: 1) Have there been an increasing percentage of comics being written or drawn by women? 2) Has that affected the overall gender makeup of titles that are being released by a publisher?, and 3) Do women tend to write comics of different gender makeup than the overall trend at their publisher for that year, and does that change depending on if they are engaging in work-for-hire or working on a creator-owned comic?
Comics have long had an interesting relationship with women as readers,employees and characters. In fact, while still in their first decades in 1950, a poll showed that young women seventeen to twenty-five were reading more comics than young men (Robbins, 1999), though this was likely due to romance and teen comics. The vast majority of these comics however, were written by men, as even though women did write or draw for these comics during World War II, as with other industries, the men came back to the drawing board and the script page and sent the women back home (Robbins, 1999.Robbins, 2013). The first entree of women into the medium of the superhero was Wonder Woman in 1941. Previous to that in the kinds of adventure comics that were fast becoming the superhero genre, women were plucky girl reporters, prospective girlfriends, or other such sidekicks that only stuck around for a few issues, and would certainly never get their own title. (Robbins, 1996) Throughout her fun read The Great Women Superheroes, Robbins explores Wonder Woman and other early creations of the masks and tights sets, but a common refrain throughout it is that the great majority of these superheroines were written and drawn by men. Even when “strong female characters” have shown up in the ensuing series, they sometimes have very cringe-worthy backstories, though there has been a concerted effort by some writers (among them women) recently to replace these with a less misogynistic narrative. (Campbell, 2015)
Not that women have not been writing comics. Starting in the 1970s, there has been an underground comics or comix scene where women artists and writers express their frustrations with some of society’s conventions, chronicled daily life’s trials or past trauma, or just tried to crack some jokes. (Robbins,1999). These comics are in some case the spiritual, in other cases, the direct antecedent to some of the recent autobiographical narratives that have been published to much deserved acclaim such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. In Hilary Chute’s Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Culture (2010), she examines these and other similar works from a critical and cultural perspective, elaborating how the graphic narrative format creates a unique canvas for women to discuss topics that are difficult to get across in other formats. Topics, that as she puts it, are often relegated to the white space between the panels. I certainly do not deny the importance of these kinds of works to the understanding of women in this and other mass-media but I feel like they’re better able to be understood through close reading rather than big data type experiments such as this.
In recent years, there have been protests of the “boy’s club” atmosphere at Marvel and DC. In 2011, when DC announced a restructuring of their line of comics, that incidentally cut the amount of women creators that they had on their payroll from 12% to 1%, the co-publisher Dan Didio faced some angry questions from female audience members at San Diego Comic-Con and ducked the questions with a response of “What do these numbers mean to you? Who should we be hiring? Tell me right now.” Robbins (2013) reports that there were calls from others in the “male-heavy” room for the women asking these questions to sit down and shut up and posits that maybe Marvel and DC are not more female-friendly because there is a section of their fan base that doesn’t want them to be. She’s certainly not the only one to point this out, Campbell (2015) writes of the “curatorial” approach that some male fans take towards the idea of women being fans of comics, complaining that they are not being fans “correctly” and so are demonized or dismissed as “fake geek girls.”
The idea of a comics as an exclusively male fandom complete with qualified gatekeepers may be an idea whose time has passed (if it ever had a time at all). Recent Comic-Cons have reported 40% female attendance at both New York and San Diego (Gregory, 2012. Carrasco, 2013). Attempts to try and get current figures for female readership are quite tricky but have been tried. Graphic Policy’s Brett Schenker used Facebook as his tool, checking for people who applied more than 40 likes for comic book related activity, specifically mentioning the books or publishers themselves, to try and weed out fans of comic-book related TV shows or movies. From here, various different information about these users was pulled with the end result being that 58.62% of the fandom were male and 39.66% were female (Schenker, 2013). A Publisher’s Weekly survey of 10 comic book stores, had 4 of the stores report their customer breakdown by gender was 30-35% female, and the remaining 6 said it was 40-50% female with their younger customer fan-base skewing towards the female side of that equation.(O’Leary, 2015).
It would seem this increase in numbers of female readers, and success stories such as the switch of Thor from a male to a female leading to larger comics sales (Henderson, D., 2015) would lead the mainstream comics industry to introduce more female characters, so as to not leave money on the table. That is sometimes the case, though not as often as one might think. FiveThirtyEight used data from Marvel and DC’s wikia sites to track the introduction of female characters over time and found that while the publishers were introducing more women characters than previously, they are not being introduced at the rate that they exist in the population, but more in the range of about 30% of the newly introduced characters are female, and that of the characters for whom data was listed, 29.3% were female at DC and 24.7% at Marvel (Hickey, 2014) A study of credits at Marvel and DC in 2014 shows the behind-the-scenes was even worse with 10.1% of total creative credits at DC going to women, and 12% at Marvel (Hanley, 2014).
What I did not see in these studies was an attempt to see what the gender breakout of the titles as a whole were, rather than the characters featured across them. Or what these women did when working within the comics, and if it varied based on publisher, so this project is an attempt to find the answer to that.
Like FiveThirtyEight, I took my data from the fan-curated wikia sites for DC, Image, and Marvel. Though the actual website for Marvel Comics did have an API into their database, it listed less issues than the wikia when I queried it for earlier years, so I decided to go with the fan-created wikia for Marvel both to standardize the process of data collection and under the assumption that as the face of a commercial entity, perhaps Marvel Comics’s API was focused on purchasable issues rather than an attempt to create a complete timeline. Not that the wikia were without their issues, Image’s seemed to be spotty on some years when I compared it to a list of their best-selling comics of that year but for their data I was less concerned with seeing the percentage of total issues that were written or drawn by women, and more concerned with seeing what the female artists and writers were creating when working for properties that they created for the most part, rather than what characters or groups they wrote or drew that may have been created by another, or even years before they were born. DC’s and Marvel’s gave very large data sets, that, though they needed a massive amount of cleaning, with some spot-checking didn’t appear to be dropping issue numbers, and so it gave me a large enough amount of data that I was confident that if it were not wholly complete, it was complete enough to ask questions about what the genders of protagonists of comics were in certain years, as well as the gender makeup of those writing and drawing those comics. Which is good news, as other than Marvel’s API that I wasn’t terribly certain was complete, there doesn’t seem to be an effort on the part of the publishers to create a queryable database for the purposes of study.
Each of those wikia had an api that allowed me to pull the links to the pages created for all issues categorized with a given year. From there I converted the JSON information that it returned to a CSV file by way of a web-tool kindly created by a user credited as @konklone. Those pages had a standardized format where they placed within a certain consistent code block the basic information on an issue such as: issue number, year, month, cover artist, writer, penciler, inker, letterer, colourist, editor and other personnel involved in its creation. I built a web-scraping script using Beautiful Soup to pull this information for each of the URLs for issues categorized as the years I was interested and write it to a text file, that I converted to a csv to curate the data further from there.
Of those personnel listed, I only kept the listings for the writer and penciler to be included in my analysis for gender. The letterers, colourists, inkers and editors, though they did contain women in their numbers, they were personnel who had a less immediate impact on the gender of the characters, and how they were portrayed. The cover artist I did wrestle with whether to include as the cover image can be very influential to the viewer in a comics shop, but two factors prompted me to leave them out as well. One was that cover artists can often be hired to do art for issues that they haven’t read or indeed haven’t been completed yet so they’re less in control of the overall inclusion of women within the content, they’re just called upon to create a cover image may be pitched by an editor for purpose of grabbing a reader and not as an accurate portrayal of what’s in the issue. The other more pragmatic factor behind their exclusion was that in the wikias it seemed that often the listings for the cover artist covered not just the person who drew the image, but also the colourist and inker with no notation of the separation of tasks, so it would have been very cumbersome to separate it out and I opted to simplify to only include the penciler and writer. So if I say artist, I am referring to the penciler.
I did my best to weed out things like handbooks, compilations and re-issues of previous issues. In cases where two stories were included in an issue, since I didn’t always have a way of knowing if both were truly new content, I’d leave all in, since while I might recognize some names as being from creators of different eras, there were others I would not and that would be cherry-picking in a problematic way for the data. Also, if Marvel really wants to throw an old Stan-Lee/Jack Kirby Captain America as a companion piece to a story written and drawn by modern creators and publish it all as a double issue in 2010 then to me, that still says something about who they value as storytellers of their medium (or if you’re more cynical, how they feel about the possibility of publishing work they already paid someone to do decades ago).
Once I had cleaned up the data enough by winnowing it down to just the pencilers and writers, I assigned them genders. While I still kept all the data with the individual names linked to what issue they’d drawn in a separate dataset, I started a new dataset where I replaced people’s names with their genders. I did this to simplify my data as I wasn’t concerned with how many individuals of each gender had been hired to produce content, I was only concerned with on a per-issue basis how many of the creative credits percentage-wise were women, and what that percentage was publishing. While there probably are some interesting questions to be asked about how work by an individual man or woman at one publisher can impact their work with another,(as many were working for at least two, if not all three of the publishers I looked at), that was not in the scope of my study.
Unfortunately, there was no standardized info-box on the wikia for pencilers and writers for me to scrape. Though the box was included on some entries, on others it was not. Obviously male or female names like Michael or Barbara were easy to mark even if I wasn’t familiar with their work. Anything I had even the slightest doubt, I’d check: the wikias, or an industry/fan site known as Comic Vine,or for if the writer or artist had put up their own web presence, or if they had been interviewed and at some point the interviewer used the pronoun of he or she. Good thing too, as there were some Sals and Andreas and Jens that turned out to be men, and a Devin that turned out to be a woman. For anything that I couldn’t ascertain one way or the other, or if I got conflicting information, I would mark them as unknown, and leave that particular issue out of my count for writers or artists if that person was the only one credited for that category.
When classifying the gender makeup of the content, I used the categories of Male Protagonist, Female Protagonist, Group – Mostly Male, Group – Mixed or Group – Mostly Female. Male Protagonist or Female Protagonist were the labels I placed on titles for these reasons: they were named for their main character of male or female, or if there were two lead characters in the title that were the same gender (Batman and Robin for example), or in circumstances where the title may refer to a place or time or situation but the summation of the premise made it clear there was a main character and they were either male or female.
The group categories were harder to tell from a glance at the title. For some it was easy to tell from the premise, if it were say, a group of male soldiers, then it would be Group – Mostly Male, while the few lady superhero teams would be aligned with Group – Mostly Female. For anything that needed any extra exploration I’d select a few issues from the run of that title for the year and looked at the named characters according to the wikia page for that issue, or if there wasn’t that kind of summary, I’d look at the cover images. If the divide was greater than 60-40 for one gender or the other, I’d put it in under Group – Mostly Male or Group – Mostly Female accordingly, but if it were 50-50, 60-40 or if there were two named protagonists in the title that were mixed genders, I’d use Group – Mixed. While this is undoubtedly not 100% objective or foolproof, as perhaps by poor luck I may have picked outlier issues to look at on a particular run of a title, I didn’t have the ability with the thousands of issues that I was pulling information on to figure out the ratios on each individual issue.
The years I looked at for DC and Marvel were 1995 to get a baseline from more discriminatory times, and then 2005, 2010, and 2015 to see if things were changing. For Image Comics, I pulled the same years at first but then noted there was a real dearth of female representation among creative teams until recently, so in order to have a larger pool of women artists and writers to look at I pulled the data from 2012-2015. In this way I can’t tell meaningfully if the overall percentage is increasing at that publisher for those years, although it’s a definite increase over the null amount that I was seeing throughout most of the 2000s that I pulled data for, however I can look at what the gender makeup of creator-owned titles by women is compared to what the larger publishers hire them to do.
The questions that I applied to this dataset were: Are the amount of women writing and drawing DC and Marvel Comics increasing? If there is an increase,does this seem to be influential on the gender breakout of titles these publishers are producing? Do women writers and artists at Marvel and DC tend to only work for female titles (whether this means they are being put in a box due to their gender, or wish to bring new female voices to the comic shelf) or do they have a broader range? Do women, when working for titles they created, write and draw a variety of titles similar or different than those created by women when working for hire at major publishers?
Are the amount of women writing and drawing DC and Marvel Comics increasing?
The good news is yes. The bad news is, they’re still very much outnumbered
It seems that writers are increasing much more than artists. On none of the years I looked at for them was there a higher percentage of women pencilers than women writers working on the titles. While the nearly three-fold increase of percentage of women writers at DC is progress, it’s still only to 11.8% of the total titles being given to women writers. The percentage of artists at both is less than 10% and while it has increased since 1995, it hasn’t increased to the same strong degree as the writers.
Has this increase been influential on the gender breakout of titles that these publishers are producing?
So, while the percentage is still very small, the question is, has it been influential? With more women being included as artists or writers, has their creative output been influencing their male fellow creators or decision-makers higher up the chain to consider if maybe a third Batman (or Spiderman) title rather than a group-based or female-lead title might just be a duplication of efforts.
It does appear that comics named for their male-lead protagonists have fell from making up 70% of the titles they produced, to less than 50% this year. Mixed groups did also in the interim surpass their mostly-male counterparts in the last 20 years, so perhaps those teams or ensemble stories are being put together with more of an eye for gender inclusion. However, it is only in the lead by about 5%, and that was one of the more murky parts of my categorizations, because of the inability to survey on an issue-by-issue basis and see how much different characters were actually being featured. Female-lead titles did see an increase from 4.9 -13.4%, though it seems more like mixed groups of characters took up the fifth of the output given up by male protagonist titles, rather than that space being given to explore stories from a woman’s point of view.
Marvel started out with about the same high of male-lead titles, nearly 70% of their output, but allowed that to dissipate further to 38.8%. But between that percentage of titles and those made up of mostly male characters (they’ve always been rather team-based after all), that’s still nearly 2/3rds of their output. Female protagonist titles saw a slightly smaller growth than DC’s from 5.6% to 13.3% to reach a similar percentage of their output. If women writers and artists are telling overwhelmingly female-lead stories, perhaps this explains that shift, but is that the demographics of the stories they are telling?
Do women writers and artists at Marvel and DC tend to only work for female titles or do they have a broader distribution of assignments?
It seems like similarly in 2010 and 2015 at DC, women writers and artists work very often on female-lead or mostly female titles in contrast to the output of their publishers, though in 2015, for the group titles, it looks like artists had some of the similar ratios to their publisher. One thing that I did run into for looking at this data is that in the years where women’s employment was languishing, outliers can take over. In 2005, when DC had a bit less than 5% of its stories and 1.5% of its artwork done by women, you can see that somehow, they’re on the board higher than they’ve ever been for producing titles about groups that are mostly female. The bulk of that 5% is just three titles, one of which was written by a woman (Birds of Prey), one of which was drawn by a woman (Y the Last Man)**.Because those two were working in such a small pool, what was such a small percentage for their overall titles, made up a large percent (25% of their writing work, 57% of their artist work) of women’s overall work for DC. This in some ways shows that even a small amount of women did shift the demographics of their publisher higher in a category than it had been previously, but it also shows who can be vulnerable to unemployment when female protagonist’s titles became discontinued.
Over time the percentage of the titles written or drawn by women that are female protagonists are increasing at Marvel but it’s only in 2015 that it’s begun to be the lion’s share of the titles produced by women creators. It also seems like artists and writers get different distributions to their assignments, as in 1995, 2010 and 2015 a larger percentage of male or mostly male groups was given to women artists as opposed to women writers, maybe suggesting a tendency to regard the idea of women writing male characters more critically than the idea of them drawing them. From 2005 to 2010 and continuing to 2015, a trend that bears notice is the consistency of women writers working on titles that consist of groups that are mostly women.
By inspecting the break-outs above, you can see that this category hasn’t consistently grown terribly high for either publisher. DC’s has fluctuated back and forth and while Marvel’s has consistently risen, it’s only gone from 1.3% to 4.2%. In some ways, that seems more telling of a lack of respect for female characters and for a female audience. One could argue that as opposed to titles based around a group of mostly women, a title in which there is a solo female protagonist can more easily display the idea that a strong or independent woman is an exception. A mostly female title (if done well) posits both that there are multiple exceptional and interesting women, multiple ways they can be interesting, and that they can relate and interact with each other without needing too many male protagonists around to make sure people are interested.
Do women, when working for titles they created, write and draw a variety of titles similar or different than those created by women when working for hire at major publishers?
To be noted while surveying this comparison, the body of issues surveyed at Image was less than a quarter, amount-wise of the group in the data-set for DC and Marvel. In terms of writing percentage, 3.1% of the writing credits at Image were women, but in a high compared to both large publishers, 8.6% of the artist credits went to women. Yes, neither DC nor Marvel broke 8.6% representation of women among penciler credits in the years I surveyed.
The titles published by Image lean more heavily towards group-based comics, which could in part be due to not having to keep as many flag-ship characters running. Percentage-wise these titles are also slightly less male-dominated. For both the women writers and the artists, they don’t have nearly as varied of a distribution of demographics amongst titles as their publisher, both dropping the category of writing or drawing for mostly male groups entirely, and nearly for male protagonists as well. Women artists and writers have a much higher push towards group-focused comics at Image than at the two larger companies. Women writers at Image concentrate on groups, even to the degree that they write for groups to a higher percentage of the time than they write about women compared to the issues written by women at the two major publishers. Pencilers as well flock more towards mixed groups than their female counterparts at Marvel and DC. So it would seem that in comparison to work for hire, women working on creator-owned titles, most often create works about varied groups of people, and frequently, but not exclusively, create stories about women or groups of women.
While it appears that gains are being made in terms of female representation on the page, and behind the page in comics, it is clear there is a long way to go to approach something like gender parity. I will admit to being shocked by this breakout. There has been an increase in women creators and positive female characters particularly over at Marvel that has garnered much media attention over the last few years, and I was under the impression that this was an incoming tide, not a collection of exceptional outliers. But a look at the titles offered by these publishers and the jobs offered to women, shows there’s still only small gains being made in comparison to that perception. Additionally, this study looks at these titles that are female-lead quantitatively, because a title would be marked as female protagonist based on its title character regardless of impractical costumes or lack of agency of that character, so more investigation could be done in how much of those gained titles have consistently positive depictions of women. While an increase of 8% of female protagonist titles (which more than doubled the percentage they were at in 1995) at both is step in the right direction, it’s far from the 40% market share being estimated in some sources. Though the question also is, does there need to be the notion of a 40% market share in order to attempt to fairly represent 50% of the population? It seems that women writers and artists do tend to write or draw for female or mostly female groups more often at major publishers than what the publishers put out in total, and with creator-owned properties put out both female and mixed-gender titles so perhaps a solution to get closer to a more even representation is to hire more women.
Campbell, M. (2015). Inking over the glass ceiling:The marginalization of female creators and consumers in comics (Unpublished master’s dissertation). Kent State University, Kent, OH.
Carrasco, Tracee (2013) New York Comic Con Appealing More And More To Women: 2013 Comic Con At The Javits Center Is Sold Out. Retrieved from http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2013/10/11/new-york-comic-con-appealing-more-and-more-to-women/
Chute, H. (2010). Graphic women: Life narrative and contemporary culture. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
DC Comics Wikia (n.d.) Retrieved from http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/DC_Comics_Database
Gregory, N. (2012) More women than ever at San Diego’s Comic-Con. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/07/13/156747555/more-women-than-ever-at-san-diegos-comic-con
Hanley,T (2014) Gendercrunching June 2014 – including nationality and ethnicity at the big two. Retrieved from http://www.bleedingcool.com/2014/08/29/gendercrunching-june-2014-including-nationality-and-ethnicity-at-the-big-two/
Hickey, W. (2014) Comic books are still made by men, for men and about men. Retrieved from http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/women-in-comic-books/
Henderson, D. (2015) New feminist Thor is selling way more comic books than the old Thor. Retrieved from http://fusion.net/story/105401/new-feminist-thor-is-selling-way-more-comic-books-than-the-old-thor/
Image Comics Wikia. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://imagecomics.wikia.com/wiki/Image_Comics_Database
Marvel Comics Wikia (n.d.) Retrieved from http://marvel.wikia.com/wiki/Marvel_Database
O’Leary, S. (2015) Comics Retailer Survey: Good Sales Get Better in 2015. Retrieved from http://publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/67045-comics-retailer-survey-good-sales-get-better-in-2015.html
Robbins, T. (1999) Girls to grrrrlz: A history of women’s comics from teens to zines. San Francisco,CA: Chronicle Books
Robbins, T. (2013) Pretty in ink: North American women cartoonists, 1896-2013. Seattle,WA:Fantagraphics
Robbins, T. (1996). The great women superheroes. Northhampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press.
Schenker, B. (2013) Facebook fandom spotlight:Who are the comic fans? 9/1/2013. Retrieved from http://graphicpolicy.com/2013/09/01/facebook-fandom-spotlight-who-are-the-comic-fans-912013/
*http://lby3.com/wir/ – The reference I am making in the title.
**Yes, I know technically the Y in the name refers to Yorick Brown, who is a man. However, literally every other man on earth in this story is dead when the story starts, so classifying it as a Male Protagonist’s story in the way that Superman is a Male Protagonist’s story just felt wrong in every which way, so it’s classified as Group – Mostly Female.