Well. This sure explains a lot. In a three part interview over at The Comics Journal to promote his new DC book, former DC president Paul Levitz is giving some very interesting soundbites. Levitz who ran DC as president and publisher from 2002 until last year and was instrumental in making the direct market DC’s main distribution channel, shares his thoughts on girls and superheroes. And they are a little distressing.
In the interview, Levitz states:
I’m not sure that young women are as interested in reading about superheroes. The fundamental dynamic of the superhero story has historically been more appealing to boys than to girls. There are any number of very successful superhero comics over the years that have had a better gender balance than others, but the genre as a whole has been a more male genre.
He’s “not sure” that young women are interested? I don’t know, if I ran a multimilllion dollar publishing business I might have a little bit more hard evidence than “I’m not sure” before I start chatting about females and superheroes. If DC had hard facts, if they had survey after survey of girls, women saying, “I do not like superheroes” or “Yes, superheroes are not appealing to me, thanks I have to go sew now” or “Yes, women who are heroes and super don’t work for me, I’d rather have women who are only heroes or only super but never together” then maybe that would make sense.
Because it doesn’t. And what’s particularly sad about his remarks is that he is the creator and writer of The Legion of Superheroes which was one of DC’s most popular series among women when he was writing it. And he created Helena Wayne, the first iteration of the Huntress who women email me about and tell me how much they loved her growing up. So for a guy who seemed to kinda get it, it’s clear he doesn’t.
And he doesn’t because women do like superheroes. Want proof? I’m a woman. I like superheroes. Now multiple that by all the other women out there who buy, read, watch TV programs and movies, blog, podcast etc. about superheroes. You know what? There are a lot of women who like superheroes, Mr. Levitz. We are not a niche. We are not an aberration. We are not the exception.
But here’s the thing. It’s not that we don’t like superheroes. It’s we don’t like most of the superhero comics that are offered to us. We don’t like superheroes comics where the women are appendages. Or dressed in outfits that are ridiculously unsuited to the job of superheroing. Or have their boobs hanging out. We also don’t like superhero comics where women are treated like cannon fodder. Or seen as less than their male counterparts. Let me put it this way, if you keep keeping putting food on a kid’s plate and they don’t eat, do you assume they don’t like to eat or they don’t like the food? Right.
Levitz goes on to talk about the attempts to get girls into superhero comics:
I don’t think the love for the character necessarily means that they love the comic expression of them. Or maybe they do and with the right writer at the right moment, that can happen and have a larger audience. Certainly any version of that has been tried by the company at some point or another in time. You’ve got the whole period around 1972 when Dorothy Woolfolk comes back into the company and she’s editing both the romance comics and the girl superheroes. She’s given Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, and Supergirl on the theory that we can sell more of those to girls with a woman driving the bus. It’s not clear that it particularly worked, and the company abandoned the experiment fairly quickly.
You. You over there. Yeah, you the one who didn’t buy Wonder Woman, Lois Lane and Supergirl in 1971-72. Thanks for screwing it up for all of us. What? During the ascent of the women’s liberation movement, you didn’t want to buy comics where Wonder Woman had no powers? Or was tied to a bomb on the cover? Just take a look at the covers of those comics from those years and see what I mean. Here’s an example:
I’m very sad to see that Levitz chose to hang some of the failure of women and superhero comics on the head of Dorothy Woolfolk. Woolfolk, for those not familiar with her, was the first women editor at DC. Maybe the only one for a long time. She introduced Kryptonite into the Superman mythos. And she was literally one of a kind. And you can imagine how she venerated by her colleagues, right? Here’s Alan Kupperberg talking about how she was treated at DC:
Some things never change. The “boys club” always snickered behind her back. “Ding-a-ling,” “Wolfgang,” “Dotty Dorothy,” and worse.
Why am I not surprised to hear this?
But it’s good that Levitz gets the idea a good writer can help. But the rest of it? I am honestly not surprised to hear Levitz say what he says. But it is kinda heartbreaking. You suspect these things, you discuss it with others, you maybe even write about DC just not getting it. And then you see it staring at you in black and white. And it’s really very sad to hear the former publisher of DC say this:
But overall it would surprise me at any point if you started to have a title that was both a traditional superhero and a majority female audience.
So I ask you. if you like superheroes and you are a woman, please let DC know. Because Paul Levitz isn’t the “man in charge” any more. Bob Harras is. And Geoff Johns and Jim Lee and Dan DiDio. And Diane Nelson. Tell them. Tell them loud. Tell them you like superhero comics when they are written with respect. When women are written and depicted as strong and with normal body shapes. When women are written the way Greg Rucka and Gail Simone and Bryan Q. Miller write them.
We’re hungry for those kinds of superhero comics. Because when they are good, we gobble them up (and if you’d spend a buck or two or marketing to women, they’d be more of us gobbling them up). It’s not that we’re not hungry. We just won’t consume crap.
Girls at one time before folks like Levitz ran things had a seat at the superhero table and bought and consumed superhero comics regularly. And then they didn’t. But It wasn’t that girls gave up comics, it was that comics gave up on girls.