Elana Levin and Emily Zanotti discuss Women in Comics

Recently, the Denver Comic Con came under the gun for having a women in comics panel with no women on it. We reached out to Elana Levin and Emily Zanotti to get their thoughts on the subject, but first let’s find out a little bit more about them.

BiC: How did you ladies get involved in comics?

Emily: I’m a lifelong comics fan. I grew up on science fiction and fantasy and loved to read from an early age. My parents shared books like The Hobbit with me and my brother and we read together every night as a family. There’s just something about swashbuckling, crime-fighting adventure that appeals to me. Many of the stories are about small people doing big things, and as a small, nerdy kid, I think I related to some of the heroes.

Elana: I started reading superhero comics in junior high but I’d always read the comics section of the newspaper and drew my own ripoff of a Doonesbury strip in junior high. I was an avid artist as a kid so I’m sure the fact that comics is a visual medium attracted me even though I was pretty immediately critical of a lot of the comics art that I saw (it was the era of Liefeld). I’m still pretty critical of a lot of the art today. I think watching the classic 90s Batman and X-Men cartoons contributed to my interest too.

BiC: Emily, I understand you do a little bit of cosplaying. What is that like?

Emily: Cosplay is dressing as a comic book or fantasy character (from an existing story or from whole cloth). I’ve always enjoyed dressing up, making costumes and being dramatic(my parents can affirm that last one), so it was a natural fit. I started cosplaying with store-bought costumes a few years ago and graduated to self-made costumes shortly thereafter. Now, it’s a labor of love and an artistic pursuit. When I make the costumes and put on the costumes, I have the opportunity to shut out the cynical world just a little bit, and I think that’s an important feature. I work in politics and the world around me is so cynical that it’s nice to have a break and do something completely different.

BiC: Do you have a favorite character you like to go as?

Emily: My favorite costume is Rocket Raccoon. I went as Rocket before the Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out because he’d been a favorite character of mine since my teenage years. I relate very well to him: I’m a strange little person who has often had to fight tooth and nail for what I want and what I believe in. He’s an outsider who needs to get by on wit and wisdom and a little bit of craziness to succeed and I both relate to and admire it.

BiC: Elana, from what I gather you host a comics podcast. What are the topics you generally cover?

Elana Levin

Elana Levin

Elana: Graphic Policy Radio was founded to be a place where progressive political geeks talk about comics so we are always discussing comics with an eye for how they reflect social issues, history, and the world around us. We talk a lot about issues of representation in comics, increasing the diversity of comics creators as well as the engagement of diverse comics audiences. Brett, my co-host is always running the numbers on Facebook data to prove how large the female fanbase for both comics is and how huge it could be based on the popularity of comics movies among women. He’s run a few published reports.

We created a space where we wouldn’t have to explain why feminism matters or why diverse voices are important in comics. There are other sites that are more about making the case that these things matter to the unconvinced. We focus on an audience of people who already view these issues as important and as a result we can really dig deep and discuss the issues with intelligence.

BiC: Alright let’s switch gears a little bit. I’m sure you have heard of the Denver ComicCon putting together a Women in Comics – Creators and Characters panel that was made up of only men. To be fair there were a number of other panels concerning specifically women in comics at DCC including Women of Whedon, Changing Times: The Role of Women In The Whoniverse, She Can Do It: Awesome Women in Comics, and Minority and Women Authors of the Past. However, some of the reports coming out of the Women in Comics – Creators and Characters panel suggest one of the panelists made a comment “girls get bored with comics easily.” What is your reaction to comments like this one?

Emily: I tend to think this is a deep-seeded bias that exists across the nerd world. As a “girl nerd,” I suppose, I haven’t had any difficulty being accepted into the world of nerds, but I’ve also been treated with skepticism. Being a nerd or a geek comes with a natural fear of the outside world, I think. We’re always picked on, whether it was by bullies in school or by rabid Internet feminists of today, geek and nerd culture has been on bullies’ radar for a very long time. And so, we band together.

One thing that brings with it is deep-seeded biases about the culture at large. Remember, when you insulate yourself, you’re also insulating other people from yourself, so much of how culture has changed is lost on people within the field. Girls don’t necessarily gravitate towards comics, so they are often dismissed completely. The girls that do gravitate towards comics are welcomed with open arms, but viewed as “different” from others who share their gender identification. Even as that changes – and I certainly think it’s changing with more availability of comic characters in the mainstream popular culture – people are still moving slowly.

What I do have to say, though, is that things are changing. Ten years ago, you’d hear a comment like this and no one would question it. Today, there are huge populations of women in the “nerd world” that will stand up to be counted. Comments like this are rarer than you’d believe based on the media coverage. I go to five or six conventions a year. I might hear this from one panel. Maybe.

Elana: I’m sure that if that all-male panel had a woman on it you would have had a far more interesting and relevant conversation going on. I know that DCC has a diversity policy. The problem was that they didn’t enforce it. They needed to make sure that female experts were on the panel. They had women on other panels after all.

As for his statement that “girls get bored with comics easily” — where’s the research to prove that? To the extent that anyone of any gender gets bored with comics it is probably because comics aren’t telling diverse enough stories or that the creators of those comics are either rehashing the same stuff all the time or writing impenetrably. As Stan Lee said “every comic is someone’s first” and while it is great to have titles that only make sense to the longtime fans or those who like doing a deep dive into comics history, we also need more comics that are accessible to people who don’t know what Final Crisis is and don’t have money to invest in following a mega crossover.

I don’t know where this man gets off speaking on behalf of “girls”. In the 50s before super hero comics became the dominant genre, female readership may have exceeded male readership. Today there are a lot of new genres being explored out there but people don’t often hear about them. At the same time, I think there is a real hunger in the public for superhero stories that feature heroes of all genders that readers can relate to. So we need to diversify our cape books but also do a better job letting the world know about non-cape titles.

BiC: One of my colleagues, Russ Dobler, at Adventures in Poor Taste has a recent article out asking “Why Can’t Comic Companies Figure out What Women Want” where he mentions a recent Eventbrite survey revealing that ComicCon attendees under 30 are split evenly between males and females. What do you think has lead to this upward trend of younger females attending ComiCons, surely it isn’t because they get bored with comics easily?

Elana: I think that one reason you see more women among the younger demographic is that there are spaces like tumblr that are dominated by women that are helping to introduce more women to comics by being a supportive community. But I also think that the growth of female fandom predates tumblr and can be tied to a number of factors including the availability of manga, the explosion of super hero films and also loads of girls just deciding not to be dissuaded by the constant barrage of messages telling us that comics are only for dudes.

Emily: I think mainstream nerd culture is attracting people from across the gender lines. I think it’s attractive to be a nerd today, much as I hesitate to believe that’s true based on personal experience. Thanks to Marvel movies and The Big Bang Theory, “nerd culture” has become “the new black.” People are less afraid to admit they’re in a fandom or part of a fandom or have pop culture obsessions. That’s a great development as far as I’m concerned.

I think there has also been a concerted effort to appeal to both genders and material in the culture that appeals to both genders. I don’t think the increase is as much due to more female-centric comics being authored (though I do think that’s part of it) as it is due to women feeling more comfortable about admitting that they have these kinds of interests. We’ve made the genre more comfortable. After all, everyone likes a good story. Everyone likes to hear about a hero who conquers it all. Action and adventure crosses gender lines. But its about making people feel welcome to be who they are.

BiC: More to the point of answering Russ’ title question, why can’t comic companies figure out what women want?

Elana: Comics companies are starting to listen to the fans more. I think Marvel is actually listening and DC is making overtures to listening. The fact that we have books like A-Force and Storm out is a direct response to the advocacy of women and our supporters who have pushed for titles like this.

I also think that the publishers could be a bit more scientific in how they decide their marketing strategies. I don’t want comics created by a focus group. The publishers need to be using modern marketing techniques like targeted facebook ads to get comics into our hands. Every woman who lists the Marvel movies as their favorite movies on facebook should be seeing ads linking them to a free online issue of Black Widow. Something like that.
And if they want to know what women want keep listening to us and put us in decision making positions in the industry.

Emily Zanotti

Emily Zanotti

Emily: Honestly, I think companies spend too much time figuring out “what women want.” What we want isn’t really that different from what “people” want in general: a good story, characters we can relate to, good and evil. We like things to be enjoyable and understandable, to tug at our emotions. Women are thinkers and feelers, and as long as stories have those components, we’ll find them attractive.

I think the real danger comes when people assume they know what women want. Too many “girl” comics these days play off feminist stereotypes. They sacrifice story and character development to focus on tired old tropes about “empowerment” and “self-esteem.” I don’t want to read that. And I don’t want to see comic books promoted in places like The View, under the assumption that “women must watch” these sorts of shows.

BiC: One final question. If you could give advice to any number of young women and girls out there who are interested in comics or cosplaying what would it be?

Elana: I’m going to paraphrase something Rachel Eddington from Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men says because it characterizes my advice well– I would suggest they find a good local comic book shop, find a friendly face to talk to and discuss what kinds of stories they like to read. Just because I love superheroes doesn’t mean that you have to. There is a genre for everyone. And even within the superhero category there are different kinds of stories available. So think about what kind of books or movies you like and then we’ll see what comics you might like.

For example, someone who loves New Dr. Who would like Titan’s Dr. Who comics or might enjoy Silver Surfer by Dan Slott and Mike Allred because it has a similar premise, or Al Ewing’s Loki book which has a bit of a Whovian voice. So think about what else you enjoy and start from there.

Also, people need to stop suggesting Watchmen as a first comic. Watchmen is brilliant but it is a post-modernist deconstruction of the super hero genre — ie it doesn’t make sense unless you know the genre it’s deconstructing. I know I’m not the first person to write this so I apologize for probably plagiarizing someone else’s argument.

And if all else fails just pick up Saga. Because everyone loves Saga. Never met a person who didn’t love it. It’s the only comic I’ve been able to get my Dad to read after decades of suggesting comics to him and him barely glancing through. Don’t you know that baby-boomer men are easily bored by comics?!? Hah.

Emily: Be yourself. And be proud of it.

BiC: Thanks ladies. It has been great chatting with you. We will be sure to look for you in your latest cosplay, Emily. And we will be looking forward to hearing more of Graphic Policy Radio, Elana.

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