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On Marketing, Demographics, and the Future of Comics

Over on The Beat, Heidi MacDonald makes the grand pronouncement that DC and Marvel will never truly target female readers. 

I am inclined to agree. It’s a sort of shrug-my-shoulders, oh-well kind of agreement, but there it is.

On one level, it’s not a bad thing— I started reading superhero comics when Joe Quesada went on the Colbert Report to promote Civil War. That event was marketed to the mainstream as a story about civil liberties involving superheroes, to an audience of a TV show known to have a gender-balanced viewership; it was marketing based on interests instead of demographics. For the most part, that is the sort of marketing I prefer.

However, living as we do in a male-dominated society, where (white) men have the privilege of being the Default Person, it’s hard not wonder if by marketing “generally” companies think they’re basically just marketing to white men, with anyone else tagging along as being an anomaly or a bonus.

We saw this in action when DC tried to downplay the number of women who responded to their New 52 survey. In addition, when “girl books/TV shows/movies” are almost inevitably and immediately seen as lesser than “boy things”, it’s a struggle to find good, female-positive media, since a lot of what is produced “for girls” is crap. And guys who are interested in female-oriented or even just female-positive media are constantly having to defend themselves over it. (see: Bronies, Shannon Hale’s male readership). Say it with me now: The Patriarchy Hurts Everyone.

My go-to syllogism to point out the flawed logic evident in gendered marketing is that if the Marketing Types were correct and Boys Like Action Movies and Girls Like Romantic Comedies, it would follow that the average grosses for movies of each genre would be about even. But the fact is romantic comedies don’t make as much money as action movies. They keep getting made because they’re cheaper to make than most other studio films, while being more bankable than the even cheaper to produce “indie”/art films. However, I’d also like to think that if studios put more effort into romantic comedies—making them actually romantic and funny, and not just ‘contemporary fairy tales with a few gags in’—that romantic comedies could make as much as your average action film. Because, shocker: Guys like romance too! I know this from having dated a few and been on the receiving end of guys’ romance.

Again, the problem gets down to “girl things” not getting as much attention or being seen as important as “boy things” At the end of the day, I’d like to just see more things marketed generally— aimed at people based on their interests, not on their identity. However, as long as certain identities are seen as lesser than the Default Person, I’m going to be sensitive to the way they are disparaged or downplayed in the media (both as characters and creators) and society generally.

As for what this means for female creators, in a comment, Elayne Riggs says what has always been my core concern about the gender disparity among Big Two comics creators:

…[R]ight now only the Big Two pay close to a living wage. We need to not only support companies featuring genres outside of superheroes and thus targeting women more, but we need to encourage those companies to pay their freelancers the same rates those freelancers would get at Marvel or DC. Otherwise female freelancers find themselves in just another form of “pink collar ghetto.”

I want women in comics to make the comics they want to make. They can even make superhero comics outside of Marvel and DC! But unless there’s money in it, comics by women will only grow at a snail’s pace. And without diverse offerings within the comics medium, the comics industry will only shrink and shed readers as time goes by. While comics are entering a growth period financially, the best-selling comics still don’t come close to the numbers of readers (or earnings) as best-selling novels or blockbuster movies.

Ultimately, I firmly and passionately believe that the future of comics is going to be wherever the girls are. Girls and women read prose at higher rates than boys and men, and are even a slight majority of frequent moviegoers— especially within the coveted 18-24 demographic. Cartoonists and comics educators like Scott McCloud and Jessica Abel frequently talk about how more and more of their students are female every year. I would like all comics to have as many readers of as many demographics as they can get, but that’s not going to happen as long as the gender that reads the most prose and sees more movies doesn’t feel welcome to the party. And as long as the two companies that control about two-thirds of the market don’t seem to care about the female readership, they may be doing just what their parent companies want, but they’re almost single-handedly keeping comic books a niche market.

Comics as a medium will be fine, of course. There will still be webcomics and minicomics run off at Kinko’s and whatnot. But it is a source of never ending sorrow to me that of all the various media that exist, comics remain the only one that even the most successful creators have to take various other jobs (some within comics, some outside) just to make ends meet. Don’t the creators of our favored medium deserve better? Don’t comics deserve better?

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    So true, and now I have found the impetus to end Plague Doctor in the most perfect way I can think of :B
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    They don’t have to target me demographically, and I don’t have to buy their product. And I haven’t and won’t. The future...
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