Comics Without Superheroes and the Women Who Love Them
Tom Spurgeon’s essay Breaking a 26-Year Weekly Comics Buying Habit tells the story of a devoted comic book reader who became disillusioned with mainstream comics and walked away. It comes down to three major points:
- Mainstream comics are a duopoly (Marvel, DC) distributed by a monopoly (Diamond)
- The duopoly produces superhero stories almost exclusively
- Superhero stories tend to -
-retread storytelling devices (like angsty first-person captions)
-repeat and reboot the same origin stories instead of growing the universe with risky new characters
-move at a pace that’s too slow to maintain interest
My story might be entitled “Why I Never Started a 26-Year Weekly Comics Buying Habit,” because while these obstacles forced one man to an ultimate conclusion, for me they were a barrier to entry. I know that there are women who read and love superhero comics; I read their essays and their enthusiastic blogs, I listen to their podcasts and I interact with them online. I thank them for keeping us in the conversation. But as a woman who doesn’t read superhero comics, my experience may give some insight as to why the duopoly fails to capture so many female readers at a malleable age.
From the time I was old enough to read, I knew there was a stack of comics in the closet. I didn’t know where they came from and it didn’t occur to me to ask for new ones, so I would read and re-read the stack I already had. It was a hefty assortment that included Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse from Dell Comics, Sugar and Spike, various Archie titles, some Children’s Classics Illustrated and Harvey comics like Caspar, Richie Rich and Wendy the Good Little Witch. I was a small child in the late 1970s reading comics published in the 1960s, so ads for mail-in toys and other promotions, long since unavailable, were a constant source of disappointment. But the stories were always fresh.
When I turned eight years old I was considered competent enough to walk by myself to a convenience store a little more than a mile away from home (these were simpler times). With a little money of my own, I picked up Bazooka gum, bars of Tangy Taffy and comic book issues from the rotating newsstand. Since I was a girl under ten, I tried out Barbie and determined it “boring” (Barbie had less personality than dry toast), tested Star Comics’ Strawberry Shortcake series and determined it “weird” (did anyone from Marvel ever watch the show or did they think they were above all constraints of continuity?), and settled into a semi-regular Archie comics buying habit (missing an issue here or there never had any impact on story). I was one of the few girls who picked up Trina Robbins’ Misty series, and although it’s often named one of the worst products Star ever published, I actually think that it’s men making that assessment. There was no toy attached with an established following and I expect that accounted for the dismal sales. But the series gave me a brief glimmer of hope that somewhere out there, someone knew how to write for and about women. I didn’t get the same feeling looking at the rest of the rack, and although I did pick up a few issues of Transformers, the glut of superhero offerings left me cold.
When I reached high school I found myself sharing art classes with students, mostly male, who were reading X-Men. I felt out of the loop. All of the comic book series I considered interesting had long ended by 1990s and I was finding Archie comics increasingly repetitive. I wanted to have comics to read, but had no idea where to begin; there was no internet to search through and no comic book shop in town to go to. I went to the local bookstore with my family and hovered over the newsstand for no less than twenty minutes, hesitating over which of the MANY X-Men titles was a good starting point. My father came by and asked me what was taking so long; he listened, thought about it, and said, “You know, that stuff’s really for kids anyway.” I ended up buying an Agatha Christie book.
A few years later I did take a chance and try out one X-Men issue: I bought X-Men #30 – The Ties That Bind (you know, the one where Cyclops and Jean get married). Imagine my reaction to this story as someone with an Archie and Harvey comics background… The pages were covered in awkward, lengthy exposition. The artwork was all over the place, with necks alternating widths, hammy hand fists and other questionable anatomy choices. The women spouted their lengthy exposition while striking spine-breaking poses, and I couldn’t distinguish between Jean Grey and her daughter from the future (daughter from the what?). There were so many references to past events I had no idea what the characters were talking about. The pacing was so slow I might as well have attended a real wedding. The characters seemed to stare off into space as they recited dialogue that could only sound natural coming from someone unfamiliar with the customs of human beings; they didn’t connect with each other and they certainly didn’t connect with me. This was proof my father was right: Comics were for kids.
I didn’t touch another comic book for three years.
Everything changed in 1997 – In my next post, we’ll learn why.