Don't know if you ever noticed it, but it seems to me that more men and boys read comic books than women and girls. The comics medium doesn't have the variety of genres that it once had-- western, war books, romances, mysteries and crime stories are pretty scarce, leaving the medium largely to its unique creation, the super hero. That being so, is there something about heroic fiction of this sort that predominately appeals to males and leaves females cold? Or is it that there just aren't the right heroes being published to appeal to women? Or maybe there just aren't enough female writers, artists, and editors to give a more feminine slant to superheroic fiction? This may a closed logic loop; because these comics don't appeal to them, more women don't aspire to get into the business; because more women don't get into the business, they never produce comics that would appeal to more women.

One theory proposed to me why women don't read comics (proposed by a woman who reads comics) is that the sort of power fantasies engendered (no pun intended) in the super hero genre are male fantasies not female ones. I think we can all agree that a large part of the appeal of the super hero is the power aspect-- here are a bunch of people who can do neat things we wish we could do. Are there masculine super-powers and feminine super-powers then? I think we can also agree that there are differences between males and females, both biological and cultural. There are "traditional" cultural virtues and traits ascribed more to one sex than another: statistically men do better than women at mathematics, women do better than men at verbal skills in Scholastic Aptitude Tests, for whatever reason. Women are considered to be more intuitive than men; certain men are considered "macho", while there isn't a roughly equivalent word for a woman.

So what about these super hero power trips? Are they strictly masculine in appeal? I know men and boys who identify with the Hulk and would love to be the strongest guy around with the license to vent your anger through violence. Do women and girls identify with the Hulk? The She-Hulk may be a knock-off of the Hulk, but she does not represent the uninhibited brute inside some (if not most) of us the way he does since she keeps her smarts when she flexes her muscles. Is it that most women don't have the urge to smash things that keep them from identifying with the Hulk the way man might, or is it simply that women don't identify with male characters? Marvel's male heroes easily outnumber its female heroes five to one. Is it simply that we don't have enough female heroes that women can identify with that we don't have more female readers? Again, we have a closed logical loop: since more women don't read comics, we don't create/publish more female heroes for them; because we don't create/publish more heroes for them, more women don't read comics.

There are a lot of questions I've left unanswered here and plenty more to be said about this topic than I can cover this time around, so I'll probably pick up on it next month. In the meantime, I'd like to hear from you readers, particularly but not exclusively you female readers, on why you think more women don't read super hero comics.

--Mark Gruenwald


I saw a movie the other week that intrigued me enought to want to pick up the book upon which it was based. (The movie and book is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, not that it has any specific bearing on the subject I'm going to get into.) After reading the book I was struck with two things: first, that the movie was such a faithful recounting of the incidents in the book, and second, that seeing the movie and reading the book were such different experiences that I could not have predicted from seeing the movie what the book would be like. What this means is even given the same subject matter, movies and books communicate different things. The movie had a largely linear narrative, contained arresting visual images, and presented characters whose motives seemed interestingly obscure. The book had a non-linear narrative, contained arresting mental images, and presented characters whose motives were fastidously delineated.

Okay, comic fans. How does this apply to our favorite medium? Well...comics writers can approach the tales they craft cinematically (with minimal narrative captions, letting the pictures and dialog carry the story and explain character motivations) or novelistically (with copious narrative captions that expand upon what is in the pictures and delineate motivations and things that cannot be gotten across in a still picture), or somewhere in between (call it wishy-washy or stylistic fusion). A best-selling esample of the former is G.I. JOE writer Larry Hama who uses captions to name places and times only and carries the rest of the non-visual story information in dialog (Larry's characters never even have thought balloons!). A best-selling example of the latter is X-MEN writer Chris Claremont who establishes a personable, omniscient narrator who explains things about characters' motivations and powers enhances mood, and comments upon the action (this in addition to dialog and thought balloons). Two divergent approaches for the marriage of printed words and sequential still pictures to tell stories, both equally valid and successful.

In my opinion, comics are a bit closer to movies than books in their capacity for conveying information. As any writer who's had to cut some brilliant passage of text because it would have covered up too much artwork can tell you, there's a limit to the amount of information one can place within a single comics panel. While depth of motivation of profundity of idea can be suggested in just a few well-chosen words (ask a poet), it generally takes more than just a few words to do any more than suggest them. Comics, I believe, are primarily an artist's medium anyway (just as movies are primarily a director's medium), and writers should taior their creative contribution in light of this.

--Mark Gruenwald

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