Any lingering, outdated assumptions that women weren't into comics could be quickly smashed simply by walking into the Javits Convention Center in New York this past weekend during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.
"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.
"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.
"This is just a total theory: There's more young women getting into things because the playing field may be more equal with technology," Chu said on the panel, referring to avenues like web publishing and self publishing.
Indeed, Kate Beaton, the single female on NYCC's "spotlight guests" list, made a name for herself through her web comic "Hark! A Vagrant." But even male creators are turning to new models in an effort to produce female-oriented books. Jamal Igle, who has worked in the industry for nearly a quarter of a century drawing super hero comics at major publishers, turned to Kickstarter to fund his latest project, "Molly Danger," " about the "world's most powerful 10-year-old."
"I wanted to do something that I wasn't seeing, having been in the industry as long as I have. There was no female equivalent to [boy comic super hero] 'Ben 10' out there," Igle says. He adds that his 5-year-old daughter didn't realize action comics could be for little girls too, until she met Molly Danger.
Conventional wisdom has it that these independent routes are more female-friendly than bigger publishers.
"There is a difference between indie comics and mainstream comics and you're going to see a lot more women in indie comics," Chu said at the panel. It's a trend that certainly exists in other creative industries, like Hollywood, where female filmmakers have found it easier to make indie films.
In the comic world, much of the attention has turned to the so called "Big 2" – Marvel and DC – which produce the super hero characters people first think of when they think of comic books. But Kelly Sue DeConnick, a writer of Marvel super heroine Captain Marvel and other series, is skeptical Marvel and DC should shoulder all the blame.
"This is not a Big 2 problem. This is an industry problem," she says. Nevertheless, NYCC also staged a "Women of Marvel" panel (on which DeConnick appeared) – perhaps an acknowledgment that at the very least, a PR issue exists.
The Big 2 are no longer the dominant forces they were in decades past, facing competition from smaller publishers and new platforms. Yet there are other reasons Marvel and DC face a higher level of scrutiny. Working at the Big 2 provides a steadier pay check than the more independent routes.
"DC and Marvel pay at rates a person can use to pay a mortgage, buy groceries, live a life," wrote Jennifer Van Meter, who has worked for both companies, in an email. "I would like to see more women have access to earning a living making comics, and right now, those companies are still the biggest gateway to that."
Marvel and DC have also become entertainment behemoths outside of the conventional comic book industry. Their creations have been spun off into blockbusters films, television, and, soon, a live show, serving for outsiders as windows into the comic book world.
At NYCC's "Cup O' Joe" panel, a panel of (all male) Marvel creators known for its lively Q&A, a female fan asked Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada when a female Marvel character, like the Black Widow, will headline one of their movies. He danced around the question, pointing to other Marvel heroines who have popped up in ensembles on the big and silver screens. Another panelist put it more plainly. "You people say you want solo female characters? Support these books," senior vice president of publishing Tom Brevoort said, referring to the Marvel's upcoming issues of Black Widow and She-Hulk installments.
"It's all business. It's all going to come down to when it makes money," DeConnick says. "Someone is going to make one, it's going to make a lot of money and then there will be more."
However, in the meantime, she worries that the male-dominated comic movies perpetuate the perception problem.
"Women grow up without the opportunity to see themselves in a lot of these leads, and so they grow accustomed to making the leap to trying to identify with male protagonists. Men don't have to do that," she says. "So it is a bigger task to ask our men and boys, frighteningly, to identify with a female protagonists than it is to ask women to identify with a male protagonist."
DeConnick and other female comic creators expressed mixed feelings about appearing on "women in comics" panels.
"I'm kind of fighting a war with myself where I don't want to keep doing them all the time, because I feel like if you keep making it a deal, it's still going to be a deal," says Sara Richard, a comic illustrator. "If a show could organize more panels with women and men creators together, it would stop being such a big deal. If you keep segregating something it's going continued to be a segregated topic."
She says that it comes down to being an example for women and girls in the audience, a point DeConnick echoes.
"I try to make a pep rally out of it, just to get them excited and get them to go home and start making comics," she says, "because we need their voices."