Last week, I went on assignment to the Joe Kubert School, for a piece that will be showing up as part of our “Artist August” coverage next month. I saw many, many cool things at the school, but the thing that left me most jazzed was this: I saw a ton of female artists studying there.
Let me back up just a bit before I go into more details. I was there on Tuesday, July 9, which was in the middle of their summer program. The program has three courses – an adult track, a teenage track, and a children’s track. The adult track was approximately ⅓ women, and the other two were just about ½ female students and, in the case of the teenage track, slightly higher.
If this were a summer camp for music, or soccer, or creative writing, this would not be newsworthy. However, mainstream superhero comics is a pretty serious boys club. More specifically, the art side of mainstream superhero comics is a serious boys club. Take this for example – DC, Marvel, Image and Dark Horse solicited only 20 books for July 2013 that had a female penciller, inker, or colorist (Image has 8, Dark Horse 6, DC 5 and Marvel 1). Now, it is entirely probable that I missed a few in my search, or that there are more women that will were not credited, either by error or limited solicitation space.
However you slice it, that is an incredibly low number. DC alone releases 3 times that many books per month, and all told, those publishers probably print close to 200 monthly floppies, and only 10% feature any visual input from female creators.
And yet, at the Kubert School, they are seeing more female students than ever – approximately 30-40% of the full-time student body are women. A large amount of this, according to the folks at the school I spoke to, is due to the influence of manga and anime on the prospective students. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is estimated that 30% or so of the students come to the school by way of a love of anime or manga, not western comics. The female students were praised as having, as a whole, a great sense of visual storytelling, and relied less on many of the comics tropes that have become stereotypical and/or expected, like giant muscles and oversized guns.
So, if there are plenty of female artists who are excelling at telling visual stories, why are we seeing so few of them doing so?
This is a question that isn’t easily answered, and I do not pretend to have all the answers. What follows is, more or less, speculation on my part. Be warned – I have strong opinions on this.
I also want to note that this is not a discussion of female creators in comics overall – there are a ton of amazing female creators – writers, artists and cartoonists – doing great work on indie books and, especially, online. The webcomics community is lousy with incredibly talented female creators. This discussion is much more about the Big 2 and, specifically, the bigger characters at the Big 2, and why we see so few women drawing them.
At least in part, the low number of female creators has to be attributed to institutional sexism in the industry. This isn’t to intimate that Dan DiDio and Joe Quesada are sitting in their offices calling women “dames” or “broads” and refusing to employ them. I honestly believe that for most people in comics, they view the assignments given out as fair; I have often heard comics referred to as a meritocracy, rewarding those who do good work, do it quickly, and are pleasant to work with.
That said, there is no reason that women couldn’t turn out the quality of work that men do on a macro level. This is not an issue of nature nor nurture – women are just as capable of being artists as men are. So, if the industry really is a meritocracy, than why are we seeing such a paucity of female artists?Continued below
Part of it is that we don’t really see too many female writers, either. Sure, there are a few high profile female creators of both the writing and drawing variety, like Kelly Sue DeConnick, Becky Cloonan, Fiona Staples and Gail Simone, to name a few particularly great/well known female creators. But they are the exception to the rule – think about how infrequently you see a female artist or writer penning a fill-in issue. Fill-ins are done by people that the companies trust can turn out a passable issue in a short amount of time – DC or Marvel wouldn’t give a quick fill in job to someone who was unreliable or flaky. Both companies have a bullpen of capable folks you see pop up all the time on books you’re currently reading. And, almost to a tee, none of them are women.
That isn’t even mentioning how many truly talented artists aren’t on monthly books! Now, I’m not an insider, knowing all of the offers that have been rebuffed, but Pia Guerra, Jill Thompson, and Amy Reeder, again, just to name a few, are not currently on a monthly book. If there were more female writers with large enough clout, perhaps they could better advocate for giving female artists a chance. But no one’s job should be dependent on someone else advocating for them. Talent should beget work, and that simply isn’t happening right now for many female creators.
And there are plenty of visual artists who are, in fact, women. At the School of Visual Arts, for instance, 59% of the student body are women. At the Rhode Island School of Design, it is 68% female. The Savannah College of Art and Design is 63.2% female. And at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, it is 56.7% female. (All statistics via http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com) So, the theory that there aren’t as many artistically gifted women is a crock of horseshit.
Perhaps part of it is that women don’t want to be drawing mainstream comics. Perhaps the overly sexualized women found in many mainstream comics present an uncomfortable choice for a female artist – draw Starfire covered by dental floss and some corn pads or don’t work. Or perhaps women don’t have the same obsession with muscular men in spandex that men do – I’m not implying anything with that statement, I’m just making an observation. Could it be, just plain and simple, superhero comics are an art form more enjoyed than men by women?
And, as of a few years ago, I may have believed you if that is the argument you made to me. Hell, if you camped out in front of your local comic shop this weekend and counted the men versus the women entering the store, I’d bet the men still overwhelm the women. But ask anyone who has been to a convention in the past 5 years if they believe that women are a sizable minority in the comics world, and they’ll answer frankly: hell no.
With apologies to Tony Harris and his claims of false fandom, there have never been more, or bigger, female comics fans than there are right now. Sure, maybe some prefer cosplay or animation to picking up monthly comics, but even that stereotype may be crumbling. Man of Steel and Avengers couldn’t have racked up such huge box office numbers without ladies seeing the films, and the calls for greater diversity in comics would be significantly less if the books were only read by one type of person. Hell, the biggest discussion on female creators/characters of the past decade was kicked off by a Batgirl cosplayer yelling at Dan DiDio. She isn’t alone in her fandom.
So there are female artists, and there are female comic fans. Why aren’t there more female comic book artists?
Perhaps part of this comes back to manga. I am painfully ignorant when it comes to manga as a genre, but some quick research pulled up a large list of female artists working in the medium, especially in Japan. Perhaps the manga world is a more gender balanced place?
But that still doesn’t account for the staggeringly low numbers in mainstream comics, especially at the Big 2. If not for colorist Jordie Bellaire, Marvel would not have one solicited female visual contributor in all of July (although I’d suspect that, at the very least, Laura Allred is coloring “FF,” even if she isn’t solicited as doing so). Could it possibly be that most female artists just don’t want to draw superhero comics?Continued below
To be honest, I hope that is the case. I hope that this is a case of limited desire equaling limited opportunity. However, there is a downside to disinterest, if that is actually the case. That downside is inspiration for future generations.
Outside of professional sports, certain clergy roles, and any job that requires certain genitalia as a prerequisite for work, there is no reason in 2013 why there should be such a gap between the sexes in any profession (and I would argue that for the first two I mentioned, the inequality will get better over time – sadly, penis model will probably always be a job for a dude). As the father of a young girl, I want my daughter to have role models everywhere she looks, and if she one day wants to draw Spider-Man, well, right now, she has very few role models to look up to that look like she does.
I’m not calling for affirmative action, or a quota system, nor am I saying that men are doing a bad job of making comics (of course, many men, and some women, make a fine living creating crappy comics, but that’s neither here nor there) – I just can’t, for the life of me, figure out why, in an industry that is constantly attempting to represent its fanbase more accurately when it comes to characters of diverse genders, races, creeds and sexual orientation, the companies that create those characters aren’t creating the most helpful part of all for young female fans – jobs.
In closing, here is an incomplete list of amazing female artists that have worked/are working in mainstream comics today, for any and all of you to get familiar with:
- Becky Cloonan (artist of “The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys”)
- Fiona Staples (artist of “Saga”)
- Nicola Scott (artist of “Earth 2”)
- Erica Henderson (artist of “Subatomic Party Girls”)
- June Brigman (former artist of “Brenda Starr”)
- Faith Erin Hicks (cartoonist behind “The Last of Us: American Dreams” and “Friends with Boys”)
- Jenny Frison (cover artist for “Revival”)
- Rebekah Issacs (artist of “Angel & Faith”)
- Amy Reeder (artist of the upcoming “Rocket Girl”)
- Amanda Conner (co-writer of “Harley Quinn” and artist of “Captain Brooklyn”)
- Jill Thompson (artist of “Beasts of Burden”)
- Ming Doyle (artist of “Mara”)
- Annie Wu (upcoming artist of “Hawkeye”)
- Kate Brown (recent artist of “Young Avengers”)
- Pia Guerra (“Y the Last Man,” come on)
- Kate Beaton (cartoonist behind “Hark, a vagrant”)
- Jen Wang (cartoonist behind “Koko Be Good”)
- Jordie Bellaire (colorist of everything you love)
- Laura Allred (colorist of everything else you love)
- Tara McPherson (art magnate)
- Rachel Dodson (colorist of all of those Terry Dodson books you love)
- Jennifer L. Meyer (artist of “Aesop’s Ark”)
- Lucy Knisley (artist of “Relish”)
- Emi Lenox (upcoming artist of “Nowhere Men”)
- Natalie Nourigat (artist of “A Boy & A Girl”)
- Hope Larson (artist of “A Wrinkle in Time”)
- Yuko Shimizu (cover artist of “The Unwritten”)
- Sara Pichelli (artist of “Guardians of the Galaxy”)
- Laura Martin (another tremendously gifted colorist)
- Emanuela Lupacchino (recent artist of “Archer & Armstrong”)
- Stephanie Hans (all those “Journey into Mystery” covers you loved)