Breaking The Rules
Comics, comic book movies and the power of the purse.
Does this blogger really need an introduction? For the uninitiated, Sue blogs about women in superhero comics at the incredibly popular DC Women Kicking Ass on Tumblr. She also maintains Superheroes Are For Girls and This: Moments for Women, and co-hosts the CBR podcast 3 Chicks Review Comics. She’s a loud and never-tiring voice for feminism in the cape comics blogosphere. We talked about licensing, marketing, movies and more.
I don’t pay much attention to comics licensing, but it’s something you’ve talked about a lot. After reading though Superheros Are For Girls and some of your DCWKA posts on kids merchandise and comics, it seems that DC does a much better of marketing to girls when they’re little girls. Why is there such a gap in their efforts to appeal to kids vs teens vs adult women? How can this gap be bridged without ‘alienating their existing audience’?
Marketing for DC Comics publishing is practically non-existent outside of merchandise for the LCS and PR. If you’re talking about all those shirts and cups and little things for your computer that have Batgirl or Wonder Woman – that’s not DC Comics, that’s licensing done by Warner Bros. Consumer Products in conjunction with DC Entertainment. And licensing isn’t marketing, although licensing is a part of marketing. I don’t think either does a particularly good job of targeting the female demographic. The female consumer controls 80% of all buying decisions. (I really encourage people to read The Power of the Purse). Women are clearly attracted to the concept of powerful female characters. Yet there’s this weird disconnect where marketers chase after the latest thing (KATNISS) and kinda ignore these characters with enormous brand awareness. There seems to be little or no connection between the publishing and what WBCP does. Look at The Dark Knight Rises. Anne Hathaway has a huge female fan base. Catwoman is maybe, what? The 3rd or 4th most familiar female DC character? And yet there’s been nothing done to translate the interest in TDKR, to interest in the comics. And, yes, I know there were attempts to build a bridge between movies and comics in the past, but I’d argue that those attempts did not have the advantage of digital (which bypasses the need to go the LCS and find something), and social media (which enables cost-effective marketing and easy measurement). How many women Liked TDKR on Facebook? How many of those might have tried a Catwoman or Batman comic, or buy a trade with an incentive? We’ll never know. But we do know that the Smallville digital comic is doing better than they expected, selling very well in digital form, and outselling many New 52 comics in floppy. And we know that show had a big female audience.
And as far as kids go, they shove the superhero stuff into the “boy’s aisle” after age 3. I was pleased to see the Batgirl and Wonder Woman toys that Fisher-Price did this past year, because I think the way you get this “Superheroes are for boys” thinking changed, is to introduce male and female characters to young kids. You know it wasn’t always this way. At one time there was superhero stuff marketed to boys and girls; it’s only in recent years we’ve seen this laser focus on boys.
That boys are turned off of cultural products because of girly associations is a popular cultural meme, but from my own reading, the numbers don’t seem to be clear. Boys enjoy Hunger Games. Men enjoy Kill Bill. Male-oriented sports franchises like wrestling, football, NASCAR and UFC have attracted large female audiences without alienating men. Where do you think this idea comes from, that girl cooties will keep away the boys? And in your experience, how much truth is there to the adage?
That’s two different questions. The first is, are boys turned off of products because of girly associations? I’d say that one is a chicken and the egg. Boys are turned off of things that they think they are not supposed to like. And the reason they are not supposed to like them is that someone is delivering that message. In that case you have a few choices: change the message, change the messenger, or disrupt both by creating content that is so compelling that it breaks through and makes it a non-issue. I’d say right now with younger males the show that does that is The Legend of Korra. It’s killing it in the ratings with both boys and girls. And it took some doing. The creators stated when the show started – here’s NPR with the show’s creator Byran Konietzko. Some Nickelodeon executives were worried, says Konietzko, about backing an animated action show with a female lead character. Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls. During test screenings, though, boys said they didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.
Korra is breaking the rules on who will watch what, not only on gender but also around race, and I think comics could learn so much from this.
The second is the belief that cooties will keep boys away from certain markets. There is so much wrong wrapped up in that concept; and it’s been proven wrong. If that is the the premise under which any brand is operating, they really deserve to fail. It’s fine to have a target demographic to bring in consumers. But to actively target against another market because you feel it will injure your brand is dumb. Again, the Power of the Purse.
Some studio execs have gone so far as to say that they won’t develop action movies with female leads because the ticket sales just weren’t there. This was pretty clearly proved wrong, with movies like Hunger Games, Kill Bill, making impressive returns on their investments, and immediately becoming cultural touchstones. Similarly, Wonder Woman is touted as ‘too complicated’ to adapt to screen, and ‘too strange’ for new readers to get into. Why do we keep going back to the idea that female-lead properties aren’t financially viable, or that they’re ‘too strange’ for mass audiences to latch onto? Especially given that these assertions have been proven wrong.
Well that’s Hollywood right? They have these beliefs, and even when there’s proof that they just might be wrong, there’s an excuse. First, you know who goes to movies more, men or women? The answer is WOMEN! What about the belief that only men will see a movie multiples times, but not women? They said that over and over again, until Titanic became one of the biggest grossing films ever. And then you get the line that women can’t open movies. Oh wait, Hunger Games. Snap. Or Twilight. Snap. Comedies starring women can’t open big. Whoops, Sex and the City and Bridesmaids. Black people can’t open moves. Um, sorry Tyler Perry, we can’t hear you. We can’t hear you. It goes on and on.
The latest one is that “movies aren’t just about domestic sales; they’re about the international market too. And that’s a male market.” Except, the movies that are the biggest international titles have huge female audiences too. It’s funny, when Avatar came out I remember reading a post saying that the movie was going to really have a difficult time at the box office because, and I’m paraphrasing here, James Cameron had kinda blown his brand with all those chicks going to see Titanic. And that for Avatar to be successful they were going to have to get back the “core” audience that loved his other films like Terminator 2. I had to laugh. Because we all know NO women loved Terminator 2. And of course Avatar is the number one grossing movie in history.
I’ve written about the “Wonder Woman is complicated” line, and it really doesn’t make any sense. Why is she complicated, but Thor isn’t? Will men see a Wonder Woman or Black Widow movie? They will if it’s awesome. They will if the marketing is right. But the real problem is, why is that always the first question asked? Will women go see an R rated comedy? Will women go see a horror film? Of course they will. Look, even guys won’t go see a crappy superhero film (I’m looking at you Green Lantern). The problem is that movies with female leads get just one shot. What are we now, two decades past Supergirl and a decade past Catwoman? And anytime anyone brings up a possible female superhero movie, they throw those two movies out as if they a proof. And yet, after John Carter bombs, no one says, “No more male-led science fiction epics,” do they?
When I go to indie-oriented or ~serious comics festivals (TCAF, for example), panels are just stacked with female creators, editors, and librarians. There are loads of women working in comics, but obviously far fewer working in cape comics. Independant comics creators often seek a cash boost from big two work-for-hire gigs, so presumably, this means that indie comics’ plethora of developing female creators and editors, could cross over. What kind of hope do you see in this phenomenon for changes at the big two? That is, if indie and small press comics inch closer and closer to hiring equality, will they drag the big two with them?
Again, it’s the chicken and the egg. If female creators see women being successful in cape comics, then more female creators will make a play for cape comics, and then just through sheer volume you’ll see a change. I’m thrilled to see someone like Sara Pichelli winning awards for drawing Spider-Man. I’d love to hope that some little girl will see her be successful and grow up wanting to draw Spider-Man. But its not easy, as there are still some folks, some of the powers that be at the larger comics entities, that have an issue with female creators on their top tier books. Even if it’s just for one issue, it’s a struggle to get them on the book. And, of course, cape comics aren’t the end all and be all of comics. Kate Beaton is incredibly successful, and not doing cape comics. Alison Bechdel and Raina Telegemeier are selling boatloads of stuff. Will female artists doing indies cross over? Maybe. But it won’t happen organically. It’s going to take someone at DC or Marvel looking outside their house styles, and getting out of their boxes of hiring the same folks over and over. I am not saying women shouldn’t hustle, if they want to work there. And I am not saying women should be handed anything. But really when you look at the artists and creators getting hired over and over again, who frankly aren’t doing very good work, you have to wonder why these terrific female artists doing indie books aren’t getting more calls.
Pundits have consigned DC and Marvel to IP-generator status, existing only to provide tested content to movie studios. How much stock do you put into theorizing that superheroes will make a more or less permanent jump from comics to movies? How do cape comics stay vital, aside from feeding ideas to their corporate overlords?
That will probably eventually happen if they can’t keep sales at least flat. And they’ll be able to do that with bandaids like price increases, cross-overs and NOWS! and renumbering. But comics tend to have booms and busts, and one wonders if at some point they’ll realize that a strategy of, “Let’s hold on very very tight to our current demographic, (males who were already comic readers),” can’t live in harmony with “Well we’ve got them; who else can we get?” And I just don’t buy the idea that you’ll lose one, if you go after the other. That’s not what marketing is about. When the NFL started marketing to women, no one said, “I am going to stop watching football because I don’t want girl cooties.” They probably weren’t even aware of it.
As far as being vital, it means breaking the mold. And that works against the instinct of “give them what they expect, and keep the readers happy.” I haven’t seen much from the big two that’s broken the mold creatively in the past few years. Sure the reboot shook things up, but the comics that came out of it? The majority of them were simply the same old thing, dressed up in new costumes, and with new villains. Day of Digital is vital; it brings in new readers and it enables tinkering. I like tinkering. But most important in my mind: comics being vital means finding new creators who you wouldn’t expect to be on comics, doing things you don’t expect to see in comics. I’m excited about John Layman coming onto Detective. He’s not a typical journeyman who has traveled from DC to Marvel and back again. It’s an unexpected choice, and it tells me that maybe they’ll push the envelope a bit. Cape comics needs new voices, new talents. Look at Snyder and Lemire, who are became the golden boys of DC, in a very short time. Both pulled from Vertigo. Both doing offbeat stuff. And now look at them. Who thought Swamp Thing and Animal Man would do that well? Look at Marvel bringing in Marjorie Liu and Kelly Sue DeConnick who do know how to write cape books, but bring their own fresh voices. I’m excited about DC bringing on Christy Marx. Not just because she’s a woman, but because she’s a new voice. I’m not going to pick up her book and know, like I do with a lot of writers right now, what I can expect. The best thing a comic can do for me is to make me feel uncomfortable. And I don’t mean content that is questionable; I mean a comic that takes me out of my comfort zone. That despite knowing the characters, finding out that no, I don’t know them, or I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I wish more comics did this.
Many people are tired of talking about ‘women in comics’, but you’re not. Where do you get your drive from? Do you see the ‘old news’ reputation of the conversation as positive or negative? Or put differently, are people tired of it because we’ve made progress and it’s time to tackle more complicated problems, or are people tired of it because they just tired of talking about ‘women in comics’?
Oh, people will say it’s over, and they’re tired, and there’s no reason to discuss it, but as long as I keep getting invitations to speak about women in comics at events, and I still get castigated by a certain part of the internet when I bring up the issue, the issue is far from dead. That said, I do think that the issue of women and non-cape comics is at this point silly. Yes, women read comics; they have for years. But when it comes to cape comics, there is still so much debate. And I can barely control myself when it comes to a good debate. My drive is simple. I love cape comics and as a paying fan, I hate to see them slowly slip away and, at times, put out content that is beneath them.
In addition to DC Women Kicking Ass, you run This: Moments For Women, Superheroes Are For Girls, and Women Read Comics In Public Day, and you’re on the popular 3Chicks podcasts. Any other projects coming that you can tell us about?
Nope, nothing else. Honestly I don’t have time for much more although occasionally I’ll get something that’s fun like the Chicks Dig Comics book, so keep those inquiries coming! I am heading down to NYCC this year so I’ll do some reporting out of that.