The Revolution Will Not Be Digital (Only)
Lois Lane, women in comics, and the business of bringing the industry into the digital age.
Corrina Lawson is a journalist-turned-blogger who’s written extensively about comics and the comics industry. She’s a contributor to GeekDad and Sequential Tart, and a senior editor of GeekMom. Corrina is also a fiction writer, and has just had her first comic book story published by Greyhaven Comics.
As an early supporter of, and contributor to, Women Write About Comics, I knew Corrina had to be one of my first interviews. I hounded her for days and days (not really), and finally she agreed to chat with me about geek blogging, the future of the comics industry, and wondrous gift to humanity, that is Lois Lane.
You came to blogging after working as a newspaper reporter. Were you ever daunted by the comics blogosphere’s preponderance of male voices?
Maybe it was because by the time I found the internet, I had gotten past the point of being intimidated in that manner. I’d worked seven years as a reporter and then another seven years as a Barnes & Noble store manager. I also went to a military academy for two years after high school. Being a girl in a school of ninety percent men, now that was intimidating. So the large number of male voices on the internet never bothered me.
I also got lucky. The very first comic board I posted on was the old Words of Prey board, which now only exists as a very quiet livejournal. It was a small group of people, about equal between men and women and they were great people and provided a warm welcome. I went to the board because I’d just started reading the first run of Birds of Prey, the comic that brought me back to comics, and wanted to talk about it. From there, I went over to Dixonverse (Chuck Dixon’s board) because he was writing BoP at the time and because one of the WoP posters was Sarah Beach, who also moderated the Dixonverse.
My experience at Dixonverse was great as far as gender was concerned. The politics of the board definitely had a conservative bent, so I tried mostly to stay out of the political threads. The people there, including Dixon, were great to me. It’s sad that he’s made statements recently that seem very biased about homosexuals because my experience with Chuck Dixon was nothing but positive.
It wasn’t until I went on to Comic Book Resources and the now closed You’ll All Be Sorry board that I felt a little bit outnumbered. Then again, it was Gail Simone’s board and she was hardly quiet, so I think the posters there were used to female loudmouths.
And then I started writing for GeekDad, which is mostly men, but all the writers there are so welcoming and so great, including our publisher, Ken Denmead. Ken is our publisher now for GeekMom and he was instrumental in helping us get a deal for The GeekMom Book.
I like men. A lot. I like talking to them. And it’s been my experience that the vast majority of them are awesome people. It’s just that the ones who aren’t awesome are so obnoxious and so idiotic. And so LOUD.
Like a lot of geek girls who became writers, you’ve said you were inspired by Lois Lane. Which Lois is yours?
The first Lois I saw was on the George Reeves television show. It had its problems, especially as Lois was rescued a great deal, but here’s what hit me: Lois had a JOB. More than that, she was good at her job. People respected her for that work.
I thought ,”I need more of this,” and picked up some issues of Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane from the spinner rack. That was the early 1970s when Lois (and Jimmy too) had become more of ‘action hero’ Lois and definitely not the ‘obsessed with Superman’ Lois.
I guess some combination of the two is my Lois. But I enjoyed reading about her through the 1980s, especially the Death of Superman storyline, which I thought handled her extremely well.
And I have a special fondness for the Superman movie. I love the scene where Superman catches her. “I’ve got you.” “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” (I pay homage to that scene in Phoenix Rising, one of my novels.)
That’s my Lois. Even being rescued, she’s gathering facts.
You’re strongly identified with the girl geekosphere (GeekMom, Sequential Tart, the Jinx forums). Do you think it’s important for girls and women to have ‘our own’ spaces?
One of the things I’ve noticed on the internet is that while men tend to talk to each other about stuff and keep it there, women build communities. They connect, they react out to each other emotionally, they build friendships and support each other. I was a weird kid in high school. I was a geek before it was cool and I was a girl who was a geek. Doubly problematic. It wasn’t until the internet that I found other groups of women who shared my interests, in writing or in comics or geeky pop culture. The moment when I realized that there were others like me out there and they were as glad to meet me as I was glad to meet them…it was huge for me.
All women may not need this but I think a great number of us feel the need to spend time with people who speak the same language, whatever that may be. I’ve found the best female friends in my life through the internet.
I think it’s probably not a good idea to stay completely segregated though. Then things become an echo chamber and that’s never good, especially for a writer.
You wrote a series of open letters to DC comics about what they’re doing wrong. What publishers are doing it right, or have done some things very right?
It depends on the publishers.
I think the independent publishers–and, by that, I mean non-DC/Marvel–are doing very well by concentrating on the types of stories that look great in sequential art but aren’t traditional superhero stories. Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising is a good example, Saga from Image and, obviously, The Walking Dead. These are not comics geared to a specific gender audience but to a specific genre audience.
And the creators and publishers that have heavily pushed into digital are ahead of the game, I think, and will see this pay off.
Viz has branched out and made available large swaths of their multi-genre work digitally. I think Mark Waid has the right idea with his new Thrillbent digital venture. I just had a webinar presentation with the makers of the Manga Studio software who are rolling out a new digital presentation software at SDCC that should allow more experimentation with the digital comic form. This is the wave of the future and Kickstarter has now made funding these projects possible.
Marvel and DC could easily be left behind in this digital future if they don’t stop overly catering to the audience they have right now. Their characters and universes are so strong; they won’t die out. But the monthly comic may be in trouble in they don’t change.
DC had such a great chance to expand the appeal of its iconic superheroes with the reboot and same-day digital availability. It was an excellent idea. Only the execution seems flawed to me. For the most part, the new 52 only attracts the very same audience in the comic shops buying print editions. It’s nice that digital sales spurs readers to buy the print editions but it’s still largely the same readers. Why be satisfied with that, when the potential for new readers is so large?
It seems to me that Marketing 101 is not being satisfied with the current audience but moving out and grabbing huge swaths of the audience that is not yet buying. And with so many choices for entertainment, especially online, I worry for the future of monthly superhero comics in the long term.
I like DC’s digital only ventures, however, such as Smallville Season 11 (great book) and Batman Beyond. Great idea. Find those TV viewers and convert them. That may be the new model for success for the digital future.
Marvel has done a good job making much of its library available for a lower price or even free digitally. I think that was smart. Use the past stories–which have already made money for the company—to promote future sales. That idea has worked in digital book sales.
But, first, both companies have got to stop actively driving away a potential audience. Not just women but lots of men eye-roll at a lot of the Marvel-DC covers. Look at what happened with Marvel’s big announcement of their gay wedding (awesome!) on The View. Great idea. New audience, showcase diversity, show off what you can do.
Except in one of the images they used, the female character on the cover was in one of those “boobs don’t work that way” costumes and ABC actually blurred her portion of the cover. *facepalm*
Comic readers probably didn’t look twice at it because they’re used to it. If DC and Marvel want to really expand, they’re going to have to put the fanwank covers and reliance on porn poses aside, and go back to when comics could be seen at the local drug store and not cause an “OMIGOD, what the hell is she wearing?” reaction.
The death knell has been sounded a few times, for both traditional journalism and superhero comics. (There’s even a newspaper deathwatch!) Are there any lessons the American comics industry could learn from experiments the news industry has undertaken?
Lesson one: if people get used to getting something for free, they will fight you if they ever have to pay for it.
Lesson two: Don’t overprice.
Lesson Three: There’s a different audience digitally.
The reason newspapers are in such trouble right now is because they assumed their digital content would make readers buy their print versions. Oops. Wrong. People read the digital content for free and ignored the print versions.
That said, I don’t think comics and newspapers [are facing quite the same challenges]. Newspapers were made to be disposable, read one day and tossed the next. The same with magazines.
A better analogy is what the book industry is currently morphing into as digital content starts to bring in serious dollars. But it took over a decade and finding the right platform (Kindle and then Nook) for ebook sales to explode.
In the book industry, what’s happened is that smaller numbers of writers are getting money up front because the big publishers aren’t willing to take chances in this economy. On the other side, moving to a royalty model where a writer gets paid on the back end has some issues as well. The first being that one gets paid after the work is done and that means most authors can’t put aside the day job to finish the work. With a royalty model, authors could get paid an advance before they finish the book or before it’s published.
Yet putting the money on the back end plus the new digital reach has allowed a lot of writers to publish books that never would have been bought in the past by the big publishers. Some of those digital successes have crashed through the assumptions of what would and what wouldn’t make money. 50 Shades of Grey, for example. An erotic book like that would’ve been hidden in bookstores. But obviously, there’s a huge audience out there for the story. (Which is no surprise to the digital erotica book industry, which has been making nice profits for over a decade now. The big trend there right now is male/male romance stories. Soon, one of those will break through to the mainstream as well.)
I’d hate to be the person shepherding Marvel or DC into the digital age. The trickiest part is going to be figuring out what people want how much they’re willing to pay for it. And by people, I mean sorting through who’s really out there in the digital market and throwing away assumptions about it. In the meantime, they have to make sure not to drive away their current audience, which is paying the bills.
But, for certain, comics can’t stay the same. Or else they’ll be in the same boat as the big book publishers, playing catch up. At least Marvel and DC have their properties generating money outside the industry in movies and merchandishing. That should help in the transition.
In your contribution to the Women in Refrigerators, 13 Years Later carnival, you said that “the real change, the one needed behind the scenes, is sorely lacking.” Are we talking numbers (of women working in comics), or a deeper cultural transformation?
Both. I think it’s hard for people to think outside their own mindset, especially if everyone else [around them]has the same one. Women are not a hive mind and they will disagree about what women like. But the very fact that some of them are sitting at the table is going to add more diversity to the discussion and bring up issues that men might not think about. The same with other groups not well represented in comics.
The other part is the perception that “girls don’t read comics” or “girls don’t like superheroes.” Or “men/boys won’t go watch an action movie starring a girl.”
Forty percent of the audience for Avengers was women. That’s a large number of women who like superheroes. I’ve seen figures that put the female attendance at SDCC at forty percent. Forty percent of World of Warcraft players are women. GeekMom pulls in half a million pageviews a month.
Those are numbers that can’t be ignored, and yet they are. When I hear people say in the industry say “girls don’t like superheroes,” I feel a little like Sue Storm. Invisible. I want to yell “we’re RIGHT HERE. In front of you.”
I can hope that the success of the Avengers, the large female audience, the huge success of The Hunger Games despite the fact that it starred, you know, a girl, and hopefully the success of Brave will change some mind. It’s great that it seems we’re getting a Black Panther movie. Where’s my Black Widow movie? Where’s the Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel movie?
I’m standing right here. I have money. I want to pay you money to entertain me. So why don’t you want my money?
In addition to being a prolific blogger, you’re an author. You’ve written two series, a graphic short story, and tackled all sorts of genres along the way. What is about genre and genre play that appeals to you?
I don’t know any other way to write. It’s fun to put as much into a story as I can. And maybe it’s part of my plotting process. I marvel at those who just write contemporary dramas. How do you plot if there’s no dead bodies or no stuff blows up or there are no action scenes? How do you that?
Apparently, I have no idea how to do that.
I think what appeals to me as a writer is what appeals to me as a reader.
When I was young, I read all the horse books I could find. Then I read Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis and started reading fantasy. Then I found Roger Zelazny and Anne McCaffrey and all those great authors who wrote for Isaac Asimove’s Science Fiction Magazine. And Tolkien. Lots and lots of Tolkien as a teen, along with Mary Stewart’s fantasies and all of Sherlock Holmes. When I was older, I inhaled all of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser Mysteries and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. I went through a long period where I only read fantasy and then I read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga and I started reading SF again.
And, very late in my reading life, I started reading romance. Turns out, romance has awesome stories too. Mysteries with romance. Comedy with romance. Urban fantasy-romance. The romance genre is the most varied genre out there because they usually pull something from all the other genres. I was missing some awesome stories thinking romance stories had cooties or something.
I want lots of stuff happening in what I read. So that’s what tends to end up in what I write.
Many of your protagonists are women. Did you set out to concentrate on female characters? Do you write with a female audience in mind?
I usually start with characters first, before the story. And it’s usually a woman but not always. My very first book (unpublished yet) , stars a female crime reporter in New York City. (Did I mention how much I love Lois Lane?) I decided I wanted to write a mystery series. So I started with a reporter because it’s a job that allows for mysteries to be investigated and because I knew how to write a reporter, having been one.
I was tired of the whole push-pull/will-she-won’t-she in the Janet Evanovich mysteries that I was reading, and decided to give my reporter a steady love interest. As I was writing, I decided to give him a point of view. And then it got a bit out of control. Turns out, I loved writing banter. I suspect I watched too much Hart to Hart and Remington Steele as a kid.
I was surprised when my first feedback on that book was “well, I don’t usually like romance but I like this!” And I thought “WAIT, I don’t write romance! Ack! Cooties!”
Yeah, I do like romance.
There are books where I’ll start with the male character or have them both in mind before I write. Dinah of Seneca, my alternate history series, started with the idea that a woman could want a family and still be strong and not just ‘the wife,’ or ‘the mother.’ But I had the male characters in mind at the same time.
I don’t write with a female audience in mind so much as I write what I’d like to read. I actually spend more time making sure my books aren’t actively driving men away, so I have some men who beta read for me. I want all my characters to be three-dimensional. I don’t want a guy who’s as much a parody of a guy as, say, Starfire in issue one of Red Hood & the Outlaws.
One of my favorite characters [of mine]is a guy. He’s the hero in the upcoming Phoenix Legacy. He’s just about as messed up as a person can be but his saving grace is that he’ll protect his loved ones. If that means killing them before they get to his family, so be it. I suppose he’s a bit like Wolverine. But he’s not nearly as, hmm… hairy. Or hostile.
You broke down your top five superhero stories here. (Great list, by the way!) What are some of your early favourites, the ones that hooked you on cape comics? Your geek origin story, if you will.
I’m old enough to have bought off the spinner rack when the comics were a quarter. The local drug store used to have them and I’d find excuses to go there.
First comics I picked up? Legion of Super-Heroes, Grell/Shooter era Justice League of America–Elongated Man voted into the League!–and reprints of Captain America and Iron Man’s early stories by Jack Kirby. I think the first Cap story I ever read was him fighting a Bucky robot. And I bought a lot of Superman. I can’t remember the first, but one of my favorites from the Curt Swam era was Superman discovering that the 13th floor of the Daily Planet building was used as an intergalactic train station of sorts for alien tourists. And the Superman Family issues were great. Jimmy Olson clones! Supergirl! Lois!
And there was Batman. I always bought Batman. And Batman Family. I loved Batgirl. I loved Dick Grayson as the college student Robin. Loved Batman. The guardian of Gotham. That’s my Batman. I had to give it up for a while in college. Couldn’t afford comics. I got pulled back in for a bit with Batman: Year One. And then I was working full-time with kids and gave it back up again. After my twins were born, I found a local comic shop and discovered Birds of Prey. Batgirl as Oracle? Black Canary, always a favorite from JLA? SIGN ME UP. I haven’t stopped this time.
You’ve hinted that you’ve got a DC project in the works. Can you tell us a bit about it? And if not, what else have you got cooking?
No, sorry if that was misleading. Nothing with DC.
For one, I’m sure there are creators with far more experience and better skills, who should be writing DC before me. For two, I suspect I’m not DC editorial’s favorite person right now. But since I couldn’t write Batman, I decided to write an urban superhero story inspired by Batman. And because I love Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One, used him as a rough archetype for the hero in Luminous. The heroine is Noir, who’s invisible, and she’s not quite Batman, but the atmosphere is very Gotham.
Oddly, the mood was inspired by some Jim Starlin Batman work I read years ago, where he faces a genetically enhanced great ape who wants to swap bodies with him. (I think that’s the plot. It was quite freaky to me a kid).
I do have some upcoming stories with Greyhaven Comics. The All Women issue is out now, and I have a story in there starring my hero from Phoenix Legacy. It has awesome art by Cassandra James. Cassandra’s also going to be drawing a story I wrote for an upcoming erotica one-shot from Greyhaven and I have a spy story coming next year for the I, Spy issue of their The Gathering anthology. I’m fiddling with a few more things.
Writing comics was always on my bucket list. But now that it’s crossed off, I can’t stop. It’s too much fun.