When Will the Perception of Women in Comics Catch Up to Reality?

Female comic creators and fans were aplenty at New York Comic Con. But were they represented?

Atmosphere at the New York Comic Con 2013 on Oct. 12, 2013, in New York City.
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Any lingering, outdated assumptions that women weren't into comics could be quickly smashed simply by walking into the Javits Convention Center in New York this past weekend during the 2013 New York Comic Con. There, countless women joined the very crowded party, many of them dressed up as their favorite genre characters – a practice known as "cosplaying" in the comic world.

But the program for NYCC told a different story, as the blog DC Women Kicking Ass pointed out. Of the 274 listed guests, only 25 were female – and only one woman was grouped among the "spotlight guests." In fact, the surest bet to see a bunch of female comic lovers on stage was to attend one of the panels with "women" in the title. (There were panels devoted to the representation of LGBT characters and minorities as well.) The disparity was not lost on the guests of those panels either.

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"I did a count of female vs. male creators, and I won't even name – you already know – the different publishers, and I was like, wow, Wall Street does a better job," said Amy Chu, a guest at Thursday's Women in Comics panel and founder of Alpha Girl Comics.

Fellow panelist Becky Cloonan, who has worked for Tokyopop, Vertigo and DC Comics, brought up the DC Women Kicking Ass numbers.

"I think they said it was 40 percent of attendees [of NYCC] were women and only 6 percent of the special guests are women," she said. ( A representative from NYCC emailed U.S. News that this year's female attendance rate was closer to 35 percent.)

"Unfortunately we're at a point where some people look at women in comics as if it's sort of a novelty, which kind of pisses me off," said "M3" creator and writer comic Erica Schultz at the panel. "You're not a novelty. If you're a good artist, a good writer, a good creator, what does it matter?"

The Women in Comics panel and NYCC's other female orientated programming were often standing room only, But it's hard to nail down exactly how many women read and create comics. A 2011 survey by the publisher DC suggested that their readership was vastly older, middle class, and male. However, comics blogger and political consultant Brett Schenker found that women make up 40 percent of comic fans on Facebook. Digital comic app Comixology found that its female readership rose from 5 percent to 20 percent in just the last six years of the company's existence.

Many say the rise of Japanese comics known as manga in the United States during the last decade or so served as proof of a mass female audience.

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"My take on this is that manga expanded the market. They expanded the market because really for the first time there were comics for girls," says Brigid Alverson, a freelance journalist for Comic Book Resources, Publishers Weekly and other publications. She credits publishing company Tokyopop for bringing blockbusters titles like "Sailor Moon" and "Fruits Basket" to a young American female audience.

"These were the first comics in a long time that were explicitly marketed for girls, and not in a patronizing way," she says.

Manga sales have been in decline since 2007, a trend Alverson thinks has more to do with the rise in online manga piracy than a drop in demand. Comic book publishers are looking for the next big thing for young girls and women that other female-led pop cultural phenomena like "Twilight" have capitalized on.

But female audiences are popping up elsewhere, like the female "Transister" following among "Transformers" fans. They and their male counterpart "My Little Pony" fans, known as "Bronies," show that gender demographics often defy expectations. Chu, who has an MBA from Harvard, says that while there is a vacuum in terms of marketing towards women, "there is also a false mindset of what people like and what people read."

The digitization of comics, with apps like Comixology, may be making it easier for women to find fandoms. And new platforms are also helping women creators break into the field.