By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 08/12/2013 12:00 pm EST
Whether made with it in mind or not, any work has a target audience. They may cast a wide demographic net or a comparatively small one, but creators/studios are trying to attract a specific group of people for a specific reason. This obviously holds true for individual works, but what about an entire medium?
The very idea seems preposterous. Movies aren’t made specifically for women. Sure, there are genres of film that target women, but the medium itself is not devoted to this audience. The same goes for television. Or novels. But what about comics? Who are comics “for”?
I want to say, “Everyone,” because that seems like a sensible answer. Anybody, regardless of gender, age, or geographical disposition, can pick up a comic and flip pages. And content? Sure, maybe mainstream superheroes aren’t appealing to everyone, but there are plenty of other options out there, right? In a world where the Avengers, Spider-Man, and Batman can land some of the highest-grossing films of all time, surely comics play to an equally wide audience?
Well, not if you ask the creators. If the last month or so has proven anything, the guys both behind and in control of the characters on the stands have a very different take on things.
During a Television Critics Association panel promoting the upcoming PBS documentary Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, creators Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Todd McFarlane were on hand to field questions from the audience, which ranged from light (“Which superhero movie was the best?”) to a question regarding the dominance of white male characters in comics and the lack of inclusiveness in the medium.
Series director Michael Kantor’s perfectly rational response: “I think our series reflects the evolution of our culture. And women and minorities have been marginalized throughout history, so they were marginalized in comics.”
The keyword there is, of course, “were”. Yeah, history did marginalize these groups. It still happens. But it does happen to a lesser degree than it used to, right? Shouldn’t comics better reflect that trend—a move towards social tolerance/acceptance/inclusion? Furthermore, why is this something unique to comics? There are major films, television series, and novels made for specific minorities or genders—what’s comics’ excuse?
Conway added, “I think the bigger question is why readers are not interested in those characters. Comics follow society. They don’t lead society, they reflect it.”
So perhaps it’s not that comics aren’t being produced with a wide audience in mind, but that this wide audience has largely rejected it? Why would that happen?
Perhaps one of the reasons women in particular might reject the medium is due to male voices not simply adhering to tradition, as Kantor implies, but actively trying to prove that women are in no way represented or understood by the medium in any meaningful way. When asked in a recent interview about female reaction to an intensely unnerving rape scene in his Kick-Ass 2 series, writer Mark Millar explained just what “rape” means in his work:
“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”
That Millar would link decapitation and rape is, perhaps, the acme of desensitization. Last I checked, there wasn’t a marginalized audience of beheaded people feeling under- or misrepresented by comics. Women on the other hand? And the rape victim in Millar’s work wasn’t some tough, gruff supervillain, it was an innocent, powerless girl—every bit the classic “damsel in distress”, cranked up to an obscene degree. It’s no wonder women continue to take issue with the medium.
When I think of strong female characters headlining comics right now, I think of Azzarello’s Wonder Woman, of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, of Kate “Hawkeye” Bishop, regardless of what title she’s appearing in. I especially think of Kathryn Immonen’s Sif in Journey Into Mystery, a title that comes to an all-too-early end with next month’s issue, and it’s this last one that vexes me the most. When a book with such crossover appeal, with such snappy storytelling, with such a strong and prominent female voice as its lead fails to find an adequate audience, is that just proving these industry insiders right?
So if comics aren’t trying to court minorities or females, who are we left with at this point? White males? Well, okay, I mean, I’m a white male, I’ve been reading comics most of my life…maybe I’m just too out of touch to see the inborn limitations of the medium, or the restrictions it places on itself?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t simply stop at “white male”. No, according to today’s publishers, it gets even more specific. In an interview at San Diego Comic-Con last month, creator Paul Pope talked candidly about his attempt to get an all-ages Kamandi title off the ground at DC. The response Pope, a creator any company would be beyond fortunate to have as a regular contributor, got is downright depressing. The words of DC editorial, as recounted by Pope:
“You think this is gonna be for kids? Stop, stop. We don’t publish comics for kids. We publish comics for 45-year-olds. If you want to do comics for kids, you can do Scooby-Doo.”
And before you think, “Well, this is DC. If they’re getting one thing right, they’re misfiring on a dozen other things,” let’s look also to a letter that ran in the back of July’s Avengers titles at Marvel. A reader wrote in complaining of the frequency of profanity in Marvel’s books these days, calling the practice “low class and crass.” The writer went on to say, “Some of the best memories in my life are lying on the living room floor thumbing through comics with my Dad while waiting for Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends to start. I would love to continue that tradition with fresh new work, but I don’t feel comfortable sitting down and reading with my kids out of modern Marvel comics.”
Marvel’s rather evasive response? Their comics aren’t “always going to be to everybody’s tastes,” and, “[a]t the end of the day, it’s absolutely your responsibility to determine what is and isn’t right for you and your kids.” While this is much more diplomatic than DC’s “behind closed doors” response, the sentiment is still there. Basically, you can give these comics to kids if you feel comfortable with it, but we’re not producing the content with them in mind. Yeah, a medium that was cultivated for a century with kids as their target audience has decided they aren’t worth the effort anymore.
Sure, there are broad statements made by people all the time that seem to suggest such these attitudes, but it’s something else entirely to actually hear the industry say it. As far as these creative entities are concerned, comics are for white, middle-aged males. Uh, well…lucky me?
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.