This piece originally ran in my newsletter. Inspired by this fantastic and (unfortunately) much needed article by Nick Hanover I am reposting it here too.
So, as well as my 'make comics' hat I am currently (albeit slowly) working my way through a diploma in journalism from the NCTJ. This is because I believe in overloading myself with work.
A lot of the initial assignments started off pretty low level, but as the course has gone on the assignments have gotten much more involved, taking up more time and requiring me to actually gather research, interview subjects and the like myself. It's almost like they're training me to be a journalist.
An assignment last year required me to write up a feature, conducting interviews as part of it. So, I set about crafting a feature about gender inequality in the comics industry. My plan was to interview women from the industry at three levels – retail, criticism and creative (be that an artist, writer, colorist, editor, etc.).
I had a very specific shortlist of people I wanted to interview when I was brainstorming the feature. Alas, after initial promising replies the majority of people I reached out to didn't end up being involved. In all cases, this was due to scheduling, current workload and the cold hard reality of a deadline.
So, the article had to be completely restructured in a short amount of time and I only managed to interview a single person. That said, I think Rebecca Epstein did an absolutely fantastic job at voicing the frustration and exasperation many feel about the state of the industry. She can be found on Twitter, here. Seek her work out wherever you can find it.
The basic premise of the article was to use data I'd culled from October 2016's solicitations as a jumping off point to talk about the rampant inequality still present in mainstream comics. These findings (in handy list form) were:
- DC has a potential of 154 creative slots (taking into consideration writers and artists only as they don't give details of letterers, colourists, etc on the solicitation source I was using).
- Out of those 154, there was a total of 23 female creators which is 14.94% of the total available slots.
- There were 77 DC titles in total for October 2016
- Female creators were represented in 17 of those 77 titles which are 22.8% of the total.
- If we do NOT include double shipping titles that total falls to 15 which is 20%.
- Out of those 15 titles, 7 were female-centric books (featuring a female lead or a team where female characters are prominent on the cover and other promotional material)
- There are 11 writer slots and 12 artist slots (one book had two female artists) taken by women, a fairly even split.
- Of those 11 writer slots, 7 are female-centric books, 2 are ensemble books and 2 are male-centric.
- Of those 12 artist slots, 6 are female-centric books, 3 are ensemble books and 3 are male-centric.
- Marvel has a potential of 168 creative slots based on the same configuration as above.
- Out of those 168, there was a total of 24 female creators which is 14.29% of the total available slots.
- There were 84 Marvel titles in total for October.
- Female creators were represented in 19 of those titles which are 22.62% of the total.
- Out of those 19 titles, 12 were female-centric books.
- There are 11 writer slots and 13 artist slots (two of the books have 2 female artists each) taken by women.
- Of those 11 writer slots, 6 are on female lead books, 1 on an ensemble book and 4 on male lead books.
- Of the 13 artist slots, 11 were on female lead books with the 2 remaining artists both on the same ensemble/anthology book.
The piece that resulted from the above data is featured below:
Part of the Problem: Marvel, DC and the comic industry's gender problem
Despite repeated calls for equal representation in the comics industry, new figures show Marvel and D.C Comics, the established ‘Big Two’ of mainstream comics, are still failing in their efforts to provide a creative platform for female creators.
These figures, gleaned from a list of October 2016 releases, show only 22% of the titles listed have a female creator involved. This under-representation has continued to plague the industry, despite Marvel reporting women now make up 40% of its readership, a figure that looks set to rise year on year. Both companies are now guilty of failing to accurately reflect their readership in their choice of creative teams. When presented with the findings, comics creator, critic and commentator, Rebecca Epstein, asks if this is just indicative of a larger problem:
“In an industry plagued by dishonest and misogynistic incidents against women, are the findings merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the comics industry's attitudes towards female creators?”
Her question raises uncomfortable truths, but ones worth investigating.
A Shameful Narrative
For decades, comics was seen as a male dominated industry, in terms of both its consumers and creators. Comic book shops almost seemed to be designed to exclude, places marked as boys only. However, in recent years, the rise of the internet and the burgeoning popularity of comics culture has given rise to entire networks and online spaces where anyone can discuss characters, story lines, and creators without the fear of jokes, abuse or belittlement.
Slowly but surely, there a surge in comics being produced that encourage inclusivity and catered for all tastes. But this influx of new blood was met with resistance by some as parts of the industry struggled to move past its myopic, boys club past. It wasn’t long before horror stories emerged concerning the treatment of female creators and fans. The networks and online spaces that had fostered this surge towards inclusivity were now under attack.
One of the most recent, and well known, examples concerned DC editor, Eddie Berganza. Despite a well-chronicled history of sexual harassment of female employees, he was kept on as editor by the company. In fact, DC also instituted an informal policy that female employees be barred from working in the same office as Berganza, thereby tacitly acknowledging the problem whilst also ignoring it [^Footnote1].
This example is just one among many when it comes to instances of predatory and disgusting behaviour towards female creators and staff.
Such a shameful narrative threaded through the industry immediately precludes and diverts existing and potential creators from wanting to pursue work with these companies. Epstein argues that responsibility should be the first port of call for those at the top.
“First, every comics publisher needs to start being held accountable to state and federal laws that prevent toxic work environments, sexual harassment, and sexism in the workplace. Figures like Scott Allie and Eddie Berganza should be fired immediately. In fact, all current leadership in Marvel and DC should be overhauled due to their past protection of sexual predators and replaced with people who openly hold themselves responsible for what their companies and the industry should look like. Only after this, can we truly talk about [the] fair hiring of creatives.”
It's these problems, as well as cronyism and the boys club mentality that Epstein argues, has prevented and undermined efforts by female creators to break into mainstream comics.
“At least one woman has admitted to turning down a Superman book due to fears of working with Berganza. Even then, the people involved in the hiring processes in these companies are grossly incompetent and lazy. They don't seek out fresh new talent, they tend to hire their friends over and over again. And because most of these people have worked in the company for at least 20 years, their friends are the same older, white demographic that wanted to break into comics 20 years ago.”
As a result of this, upcoming and established female creators find a more welcoming destination amid independent comic companies or self publishing. As well as providing a more balanced outlook, publishing work by female creators across multiple genres, such approaches also provide more in the way of creative control and financial reward.
Epstein even recommends this as a primary avenue for female creatives looking to break into the industry. Superheroes are no longer the only draw for comic book readers after all.
An Endless Loop
It's only when looking at the stories and experiences of female creators that it becomes obvious the figures discovered are merely a smattering of the problems in the comic book industry when it comes to gender equality and diversity. For women working in the industry, these findings don't come as a shock, as Epstein explains:
“No, I've watched these same figures for years—possibly even before becoming a comics critic and journalist. These are the best they have ever been. What's truly shocking is the type of behaviour from comic professionals behind the scenes that ensure that figures stay at such a low rate. It's really no wonder after hearing so many horror stories from women who tried to break into the industry (as well as nearly experiencing one of my own).”
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, nothing much has changed in the industry and new revelations follow a seemingly predicated cycle. New information will come to light that a male creator, editor or executive have abused their position and harassed or intimidated a female employee, creator or fan.
The comics industry will convulse in outrage and anger, vehemently attacking and condemning the guilty party. Think pieces and commentary will appear stating this is a problem the industry needs to fix. The accused and guilty will batten down the hatches, either denying their behaviour outright, carrying on as if nothing has happened or issuing a stock apology before business as usual resumes. Then the news cycle of the industry finds something else to latch on to and the memory of all that has gone on fades, staying only with the victim and a select circle of journalists, critics and insiders.
The Buck Stops Here
There is, of course, a responsibility of male creators in the industry that all should be observing. Don't be a dick. Don't be a creep. Don’t condone predatory or sexist behaviour. Speak up and speak out. These should be unspoken rules, but the fact I'm having to type them speaks volumes.
But the above is merely an extension, a causation of the policies the big two continue to pursue. The vast majority of those who have been accused of harassment, assault or intimidation are still working in the industry. The companies they work for, the same companies who champion their female characters and growing female readership, does not give its male creators and employees boundaries, rules or a set of consequences.
By refusing to dole out punishment and justice to those undermining the efforts to diversify and grow the industry they ensure it will be forever trapped in amber and that the misogynistic attitudes so prevalent will continue.
[^Footnote1]: The latter part of this sentence sums up the problems rife in the industry in a nutshell.