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When she left DC Comics in September of last year, Janelle Asselin was one of the few female editors at the company. Asselin, who worked on the Batman line, was an editor on Birds of Prey as well as an associate editor on Batwoman, Detective, Batman and few other books. During her time at DC Comics, Asselin began work on graduate thesis in publishing at Pace University. The topic was one that I have a lot of interest in — increasing the sales of comics among women. I follow Asselin on Twitter and kept tabs on her progress over several months. With the thesis finished, I set up some time to speak to her about her findings. The following is an interview with her about the findings of her thesis and thoughts about women in comics.
Janelle, you took on this thesis when you were an editor at DC Comics, which as you say in your piece, focuses on male readers. Tell me about how you came up with the topic.
I knew when I started my masters program that I wanted to do as much as I could to turn what was a generally focused publishing program into being comics related. I often used comic companies for assignments and things like that. So I knew that I wanted my thesis to be about comics from the very beginning. My thesis advisor had me come up with two possible topics, so I chose women and comics as one and copyright and comics as the other. Through the course of doing some basic research and talking through both topics with friends and family, it became clear that while both interested me, the topic of women and comics was the one I was really passionate about. I worry that a lot of times, commentary on the topic of women and comics veers into the negative, which is so easily dismissed by people on the other side. I wanted to write something positive - something that admitted the problems in the industry (which are plentiful) but more importantly offered what I saw as solutions. And certainly being in the midst of the early days of planning the New 52 and watching, from the inside, as DC hatched marketing plans and all that as I came up with my topic was…influential.
That seems to imply you had some questions about how they were choosing their targets for the new 52. Were you surprised about the lack of targeting of female readers (i.e. the identification of the male 18-34 target)?
I wasn’t surprised, but it was hard to think - I’m working on a book like Birds of Prey which I’m OBVIOUSLY pushing to be aimed at women 18-34, and instead the whole part and parcel was aimed at one narrow demographic. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ignore a demographic that could be so valuable and which is largely so untapped at this point.
Janelle, summarize for me what are the conclusions you made from your research. What surprised you most?
The primary conclusions I made from my research are that there are four different ways the comics industry can adjust to increase sales to an often excluded demographic that just happens - oh yeah - to make up over 50% of America. Those four ways are better marketing towards women, more inclusive content, more effective distribution, and changing the cultural preconceptions of comics. Not every company would need to do every thing on that list, obviously. There are great indie companies that produce content that is already woman-friendly - but people just don’t know about them yet. They would need to market to women better or find new ways to distribute. And better marketing to women would, over time, change the cultural preconceptions of comics.
The thing that surprised me the most was that the answers, as I saw them anyway, were not insane, drastic measures that companies would need to take. These are all within the grasp of comics publishers and retailers. Obviously the cultural preconceptions are difficult to change, but with the other three being adjusted, that would come eventually. It just takes actually considering women of any age a viable market for comics.
Did you have any preconceived beliefs going into it? What were they?
I’ll be the first to admit that for most of my life I did not consider myself a “feminist” or anything of the sort. I have a dear friend who is a definite feminist who taught me a lot about what it really meant to be a feminist and speak up about the issues that women face. The evolution of my feminism really kicked off when I started my thesis, though. Previously I had…not a dismissive view of the issues women in comics face, but I think really an innocence about how deep and serious those problems are. Spending my time living and breathing WOMEN AND COMICS all the time really changed how I thought about the entire industry and certainly about women’s place in it. I tend to be an optimist so I really wanted to find that we were all underestimating comics publishers and shop owners…but we’re not, at least not for many of them. It’s one thing to know your own experiences and it’s another to see those experiences mirrored in hundreds of respondents on a survey or see the gender breakdown in readers from publishers and convention organizers.
You mention the paper helping to evolve your self-identity as a feminist. As you delved down into the issues of women and comics did you have one moment where you shook your head or had a light go off that changed your view? Do you identify as a feminist today?
It was definitely a more gradual process for me but probably the biggest revelation was - oh yeah, there are comics that are good for women that are out there! It’s easy to get bogged down in the day to day sludge through superhero comics that don’t want us as consumers, especially as someone who got into comics through that genre and worked in that genre, and forget that there are a ton of small companies or self-publishing cartoonists who ARE doing a great job. Those companies and cartoonists should be recognized - and we should find a way to help them market themselves. And yes, I do identify as a feminist today.
In the paper you state:
without changing the content problems that the largest publishers in the country have, the perception of comic books as a whole will not change.
As well as concluding:
The content of comics from the main two publishers needs to be less sexist and offensive to women and the entire industry needs to have a diverse selection of comics for women and children.
The survey showed that 77% of those in your survey said they thought more female creators would increase female readership although there was clearly some conflicting data regarding whether female creators influenced a purchase but that said I was interested to hear your thoughts around female creators as a factor in getting more female readers. How important do you think it is? How realistic?
I think the bottom line is that more female creators are good for the industry. The important things about hiring more female creators (which, to be honest, is not at all easy) are that it both furthers the appearance of the industry as a place for women and they are more likely to write women well. If you were a woman considering reading comics but you’d started to dismiss the industry as a “guy thing” and you saw a cool comic written by a woman - wouldn’t that make you think twice? It’s not as if it would be an immediate rush of female readers but I think that the appeal of seeing things created by women does make the industry seem more like it’s a place for women. And while there are male writers who can write women really well (Greg Rucka and Duane Swierczynski both come to mind), there are MANY who cannot. A good writer should be able to write people of any gender well, but more often than not in superhero comics you find decent writers who write fairly complex male characters and female characters that are sexy cardboard cut-outs. And don’t even get me started on how women are often drawn. It’s frustrating to read. Female readers want to read and see better female characters and there’s a hope, I think, from all of us, that female creators can offer that.
As far as how realistic it is to expect female creators to bring in female readers, I think it’s important but like all creative decisions in comics can go completely unnoticed if not paired with good marketing and better distribution. If publishers think hiring a female writer or artist is going to double their sales to women, they’re likely going to be disappointed. But if they pair a female creator with a good marketing effort (aimed at places women actually look) and distribute it in a way that women have access to, then I think you have a great chance.
Another interesting conclusion was that comics needs to product more content for children given that you are now working with content for kids. (Note: at Marvel/Disney) Tell me about your thoughts there - do you see it as feeding a new generation? A way to reach the powerful “momconomy”?
I cannot speak strongly enough about how interrelated I think women and children readers are and how both are extremely important to the future of comics. Women make 80% of the retail purchases in America. EIGHTY PERCENT. And that means that more often than not, if a kid is shopping, it’s with mom. So if the comic industry wants to have a future and hook readers young, they need to target both women and children. If a woman is reading comics, she’ll be more likely to let her kid read comics. And if a kid is raised in a house where one or both parents read comics, I think we all already know that he or she will be more likely to read comics. Kids who never know comics exist are going to have a hard time finding them when they’re at an age that most superhero comics are geared towards. And even better in all of this is the fact that if mom reads comics, she’ll have no problem with her daughters reading comics, which increases the future female readership of comics as well as just the future male readership of comics. There’s no loss here for the comics industry. It just takes foresight. Creating more comics for kids and women, making sure they know they exist, and making sure they’re accessible could genuinely change the future of the industry. Some publishers are already doing a great job making stuff for one or both (Top Shelf and Archaia both leap to mind). We just need a greater segment of the industry to take those demographics seriously.
Clearly I and other comics readers were concerned by what we saw was a missed opportunity by new 52 to target female readers. Given your thesis and the fact that you were there was there anything you would have done differently?
Unfortunately I can’t give you a truly honest answer to this, but I will say one thing: the one thing I wouldn’t change, in many ways, is Birds of Prey. I’m so damn proud of that book. Duane and Jesus and June just keep getting better month after month. When I read Birds, I see the best of what I wanted to accomplish at DC.
Okay, I give you the key to the marketing kingdom for the big two. What would be the first thing you would do to get more female readers?
Well I think before I’d market either of the big two to women, I’d make sure the content was woman-friendly. But if that had been achieved, I’d say get the comics out there into the mainstream. Pay money to get comics into the hands of women on television - make it seem normal for women to read comics. Both companies are owned by large media conglomerate, so this shouldn’t be too terribly hard. Get previews or ads in magazines like Bust, which already caters to women who are more open-minded about comics. And of course, spend some time courting the women who are already reading comics by doing previews, interviews, ads, etc on the websites they read.
Let’s jump 5 years into the future. Jump! What would make you happy about women in comics? What would surprise you?
I’d say a large percentage increase of female readers, industry-wide, would make me happy. Heck, not even THAT large of an increase - something like 25% more than there are currently in the industry. Growth that would make it obvious we’re here and we’re not going away. More product made for women, definitely. Product that’s made for men that’s less misogynistic. Product that is aimed at both genders. Marketing campaigns big and small aimed at women. These are the relatively easy things - the distribution and cultural changes are more long-term goals.
What would surprise me is if companies were still approaching comics as being only for men. The industry is not on an upswing, and sooner or later, publishers and retailers will want to hit new markets - and they’ll realize that MORE men 18-34 may not be the answer they once thought.
And finally, if you had someone ask what superhero comics offer to women, despite the challenges you outlined, what would you say?
Awesome characters! They may not always be written or drawn well, but man, think of all the AMAZING female characters that are in super hero comics. Black Canary, Rogue, Huntress, Storm…even Cass Cain, Stephanie Brown, and Oracle still exist in back issues and trades and can exist again. These are characters that are fun to watch when they’re at their best - and they are an escape from our every day lives, where most of us don’t get to take down criminals or save lives. The characters make it all worth it, because in the right hands, they are amazing.
You can view some of the statistics from a survey that Asselin conducted for her thesis here.