Yesterday, Noelle Stevenson posted a comic about her experiences in comic shops that were unfriendly towards female customers. Noelle is a comic book creator herself, the writer and artist of the fantastic and award winning webcomic Nimona and the co-writer of the upcoming Lumberjanes, and yet she often finds comic book shops uncomfortable and offputting, to such a degree that she doesn’t go to them anymore. The staff can be condescending and dismissive to women, and this obviously creates a rather unpleasant environment for female customers.
Some might suggest that Noelle’s experiences are her own and not necessarily indicative of comic shops more broadly, but here’s the thing: Her comic has been up less than a day and it’s already got over 60,000 notes. There are A LOT of people identifying with her frustrations, and this highlights a huge problem within the comic book industry. It’s not a new problem, certainly, but one that’s existence is ridiculous in 2014.
Now, there are a lot of fantastic, welcoming comic shops out there. The site Hate Free Wednesdays lists tons of great stores, including my own local comic shop, Strange Adventures. But for every awesome store, there’s a shop that conforms to The Simpsons Comic Book Guy stereotype and treats female customers poorly. They assume that because she’s a woman she doesn’t know anything about comics, or that she’s there just to buy stereotypically “girly” items. They see themselves as the gatekeepers of a vast mythology that the uninitiated are unworthy to access, and see all women as automatically on the outs based solely on their gender. They believe that the objectification and sexualization of female characters is fine – nay, required – because comics are meant for them and must cater to their prurient desires. They are a sad, contemptuous bunch who have long forgotten the joy and awe these caped adventurers inspired in them when they first discovered comics.
Which brings us to the comic book industry itself, and superhero publishers in particular. In many ways, these unwelcoming shops are a reflection of these publishers. They assume that women don’t want to buy their products, they rarely hire women and when they do they often put them on books starring female characters, they’re terrible at making their characters accessible to new readers, and they continually pump out T&A to appease what they see as their core audience. Their books are dark and gritty, joyless tales of death and destruction. For quite some time now, unfriendly comic book shops and unfriendly publishers have been working in tandem to repel women away from comic books.
Things have been getting better on the publishing side, albeit slowly. Marvel in particular has realized that a female audience exists AND that they enjoy more than just female characters, though the recent increase in female-led books is nice too. The New 52 and Marvel NOW! have created a somewhat better level of accessibility. The T&A is still pretty ridiculous, though, and there is often an entrenched antagonism towards anyone who brings up sexism or problematic choices. They don’t seem to realize that making a few good moves doesn’t mean that people won’t continue to criticize their many bad ones.
Nonetheless, the industry is slowly improving, however glacially, and ideally comic book shops will follow suit. The growth in popularity of publishers like Image and Boom!, particularly among female fans, is shifting audience demographics, and the stores that continue to see female customers as some sort of affront to their purity will miss out on a lot of business. In this day and age, when it’s so easy to get comics, both physical and digital, online, all comic book shops are going to have to offer excellent service to survive, and those who actively exclude half the population will probably be among the first to die.
Noelle’s comic perfectly captures the plight of many female fans in today’s comic book marketplace, but hopefully the tide is turning. It’s ludicrous that women still face such neanderthalic treatment in comic shops in 2014, and the responses to the comic from mansplainers online has just been foolish. Patriarchy; it’s the worst. But in the end, some women will find good shops and these stores will thrive, while others will find alternative ways of getting comics. Some might ditch the medium, which is unfortunate, but overall the recent growth of female readers has been very encouraging. I mean, disgruntled female customers are MAKING COMICS about their experiences. Comics will be fine; this is the new vanguard of what the medium is becoming. In the end, the real losers are the actual losers who fail to recognize that women are people and instead lock themselves in their He-Man women haters nerd dungeons; their shops will stagnate or die. And good riddance to them.